Never able to sport the look of a contender this season, the Orioles showed in the past week that they don't play the role of a spoiler very well, either. Last night, they couldn't bring much to the table for a game with little purpose besides fine-tuning the opposition.
One night after the American League East champions sprayed chilled champagne in the visitors' clubhouse at Camden Yards, the Boston Red Sox warmed up for the playoffs by defeating the Orioles, 6-2, before 43,081.
The loss, which pared the season's schedule to two games, ensured that the Orioles (78-82) will finish below .500 for the second year in a row after two straight appearances in the American League Championship Series.
Streaky to the end, they've lost five of their past seven -- including Game 2 of Thursday's doubleheader that allowed New York to clinch the division -- after reeling off 13 straight wins last month.
Doug Linton, pressed into duty last night because of Jason Johnson's broken toe, retired only one of the first six batters he faced. Jose Offerman reached on an infield hit and, one out later, Jason Veritek homered onto the flag court in right. It was the fourth homer Linton had allowed to the Red Sox in seven innings this season, but the first with a runner on base.
They were just getting revved up.
A single and walk set up a run-scoring double by Brian Daubach, one of three players to take Linton deep at Fenway Park last Saturday. Trot Nixon walked with two outs before No. 9 hitter Donnie Sadler was retired on a tapper in front of the plate -- on the 37th pitch by Linton.
Boston added a run in the third on a two-out single by Wilton Veras and a double into right-center field by Nixon.
"Linton was up with his pitches and you just can't be behind in the count. He gave us six innings, but he gave up six runs," said manager Ray Miller.
"When he has the ball down, he does well, but when the ball gets up, he gets hit. Sometimes, he's quick to the plate when he doesn't really have to be, and that's when he gets in trouble."
A 4-0 lead for Bret Saberhagen would have been money in the bank except Boston manager Jimy Williams made an early withdrawal. Saving his starter for next week's Division Series, Williams brought in Japanese rookie Tomokazu Ohka to begin the third inning.
Saberhagen had lost twice to the Orioles in three previous starts this year, even though they barely laid wood on him. He had surrendered only two earned runs in 18 2/3 innings, most recently losing a 1-0 duel with Mike Mussina on Sept. 24. The Red Sox found a new way to deprive him last night.
The closest the Orioles came to scoring against Saberhagen was when Albert Belle led off the second inning with a drive to center.
Damon Buford reached over the fence in front of the Orioles' bullpen to make a leaping catch, then teased the crowd by not showing the ball for a few seconds as he backpedaled. Belle was fooled. He was more than halfway to second before realizing Buford had robbed him.
The night wasn't without some merit for the Orioles. Mike Bordick's single in the fourth inning was the club's 1,558th hit this season, breaking the previous record set in 1996. Belle followed with a single, putting runners on the corners with two outs. Jeff Conine, who began the night in a 10-for-67 slump, battled Ohka to a full count before flying to center.
Aware that his club had established the record for hits, Miller received the ball after Bordick's single and handed it to hitting coach Terry Crowley. Perhaps no other gesture this season was more appropriate.
"He was probably a little embarrassed. He didn't know what I was doing," Miller said. "He's worked his butt off this year and done a good job for us. In the history of the Orioles, that's the most hits. To me, that's pretty significant."
The Orioles put at least one runner on base in each of the first five innings, but couldn't deliver in the clutch. B. J. Surhoff grounded into a double play in the first. Jerry Hairston was caught stealing to end the second after reaching on an error. Eugene Kingsale bounced into a double play in the third. Mike Figga grounded into a force to close the fifth after Kingsale had singled.
Boston wasn't nearly as wasteful. A two-run homer by Offerman in the sixth increased its lead to 6-0 in Linton's final inning. He allowed 10 hits for the third time in his last six starts.
Brian Falkenborg, who arrived from the instructional league yesterday after spending the season at Double-A Bowie, threw two scoreless innings in his major-league debut. He allowed two hits and walked two.
"He had a good face," Miller said. "He looked comfortable. He didn't look nervous. He looked like he knew what he was doing. He showed me a good curveball and he popped the ball pretty good."
Falkenborg, who was given the scorecard by Miller, appreciated the fast entrance. He didn't relish the thought of sitting in the bullpen for three games waiting for a chance that might not have come.
"They didn't give me a chance to get overly anxious," he said.
Ohka, who blanked the Orioles on four hits over three innings, turned the lead over to Tom Gordon in the sixth. Unlike Sunday's game in Boston, when Williams allowed Gordon to warm up before being told he hadn't been activated from the 60-day disabled list, the Red Sox closer was permitted to stay around long enough to give up a two-out, two-run single to Kingsale in the seventh.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Red Sox's Ramon Martinez (1-1, 4.30) vs. O's Doug Johns (6-3, 4.35)
Tickets: About 1,000 remain Pub Date: 10/02/99