The new season is barely a week old and there already is enough evidence to support a new juiced-ball theory, but the Orioles can't complain.
They have been losing baseballs at such a dramatic rate that venerable umpire attendant Ernie Tyler had to break into the emergency supply during last night's 14-10 victory over the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards.
The Orioles and Tigers combined to hit nine home runs and tied a major-league record with five in the fifth inning. Both teams were making so much contact that the usual six dozen balls lasted through six innings.
Cal Ripken started the barrage -- and continued the countdown to career hit No. 3,000 -- with a two-run shot in the second off Tigers starter Dave Mlicki. Albert Belle cranked a three-run shot in the third. And major-league home run leader Charles Johnson teamed up with shortstop Mike Bordick in the fifth to hit back-to-back homers for the second night in a row.
"It really feels good to get the big hits like we did tonight," said Johnson, who drove in four runs to increase his major-league-leading RBI total to 12. "I remember last year at this time, we weren't getting the big hits to win ballgames, so it feels good to see everybody getting big hits."
Too bad it wasn't Umbrella Night, because the Tigers also were raining baseballs on the bleachers. They hit five, including three off Orioles No. 4 starter Calvin Maduro, who gave up six earned runs over four-plus innings in his Orioles regular-season debut.
It wasn't pretty, but the Orioles registered their third consecutive victory before an upbeat crowd of 39,415 and spent their second day at the top of the embryonic American League East standings.
Here it is, four games into the regular season, and they are turning preseason conventional wisdom on its ear.
Ripken was supposed to have lost some of his pop when he underwent back surgery last September, but he launched a two-run homer well into the bleachers in left-center field to give the Orioles the lead in the second inning.
Belle's bat was supposed to be AWOL in April, but he blasted his second three-run homer in a span of 10 at-bats in the third inning and doubled home a run in the fifth.
First baseman Will Clark's productivity was in doubt after an injury-marred 1999 season, but he has shaken off a badly bruised knee to reach base 13 times in his first 17 at-bats.
The Orioles' bullpen was considered highly suspect -- even before the loss of closer Mike Timlin to a rib-cage tear -- but the club has gotten several solid relief efforts during the three-game winning streak.
For a while, it even looked like the much-maligned back end of the starting rotation would register a second consecutive victory, but Maduro made a four-run Orioles lead disappear in the hail of middle-inning home runs.
Maduro retired the first seven batters he faced and appeared destined for victory, but he surrendered three homers in a span of six batters to allow the Tigers back into the game.
Center fielder Juan Encarnacion delivered the first blow, a two-out, two-run shot into the center-field bleachers in the fourth. In the fifth, catcher Brad Ausmus greeted Maduro with a drive into the left-center field seats, and Dan Palmer atoned for two earlier strikeouts with a two-run shot onto the flag court to give Detroit the lead.
"He just lost his location," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I don't think he threw 30 pitches through the first two innings, then his pitch count just went ballistic."
Enter middle reliever Tim Worrell, who didn't waste any time finding out what all the commotion was about. The first batter he faced -- rangy first baseman Tony Clark -- launched the Tigers' third home run of the inning.
Of course, the inning was far from over. The Orioles knocked Mlicki out of the game with three straight hits to open the inning, then launched back-to-back homers against reliever Mark Johnson in the rookie right-hander's major-league debut.
Round up the usual suspects. Charles Johnson and Bordick hit back-to-back home runs off Cleveland Indians starter Charles Nagy on Thursday night, and they hooked up again last night. Johnson's mammoth three-run shot into the upper bullpen in center broke the game open and embellished an already impressive start.
It was his fourth home run and his third three-run shot in as many days.
Ripken's second-inning shot was his first home run -- including the exhibition season -- since returning from lower back surgery. The Orioles unrolled No. 2,994 on the warehouse wall to signify another step toward his historic 3,000th career hit, but the home run might even be more significant because of what it says about Ripken's physical condition.
"It seems like my swing has been coming," he said. "Tonight's home run is an excellent sign. It feels good to drive the ball to the gap. You look for certain signs. I was very happy about that."
Belle also is on a minor roll, which is only surprising because he is not known as an early-season hitter. His homer in the third appeared to break the game open, but that was before the evening turned into a meteor shower.
His fifth-inning double also came at a pivotal juncture, delivering B. J. Surhoff to the plate with the tying run after Bobby Higginson fell down on the warning track trying to retrieve the ball.
The Belle at-bat was a study in poetic justice. He was hit on the elbow by a pitch from Mlicki -- the video replay proved that beyond a reasonable doubt -- but umpire Jim McKean thought the ball hit the knob of the bat and called it a strike. Hargrove came out to argue, but he got little help from Belle, who clearly wanted to continue the at-bat.
He worked the count full and then laced the double into the left-field corner to pull the Orioles even at 7-7.
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1: 35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Tigers' Hideo Nomo (1-0, 3.86) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (0-1, 4.69)