OAKLAND, Calif. -- The tortured scene, as predictable as it has become frustrating, played out again last night. Able to count on one hand the number of outs needed for their next win, the Orioles were sent away mumbling about a great start turned into something merely good.
The Oakland Athletics beat the Orioles, 3-2, in 11 innings last night after de facto closer Mike Trombley stumbled for a second straight game by allowing a bases-empty home run to catcher Ramon Hernandez leading off the ninth inning. Trombley's mistake, a 1-and-2 split-finger pitch without bite, erased a 2-1 lead and allowed pinch hitter Olmedo Saenz to end the game two innings later with a bases-loaded single off Tim Worrell (2-2).
The reversal ended the Orioles' six-game winning streak and invited more questions about a bullpen that has yet to find consistency for any sector.
Fact: The Orioles are 11-6.
Stronger fact: They would be 15-2 if able to hold leads for the final six outs of four games. Overall, the bullpen has blown five of nine save chances.
"I think it goes both ways," said Trombley in the bullpen's defense. "I'm sure we've lost some we should've won. But who knows? Maybe those couple losses kicked us in the butt a little bit to get us going a little bit."
The loss -- the Orioles' fifth when leading or tied after the seventh inning and their second when leading after eight -- dropped them out of a one-day tie for the American League East lead. It also wasted a solid start from Jason Johnson and an umpires' gift offering.
Even after Trombley's mistake, the Orioles had an opportunity to take an 11th-inning lead after consecutive singles by Mike Bordick and B. J. Surhoff created a first-and-third threat with one out. Summoned to face Albert Belle, A's reliever Jason Isringhausen quashed the threat by getting him to ground into a double play.
The A's were more opportunistic. Ben Grieve began the inning's bottom half against Worrell by driving a pitch into the right-center field gap. Having entered the game as a pinch hitter in the top of the inning, Brady Anderson tried to cut off the ball but its overspin allowed it to skip past the center fielder as his left ankle gave way. Grieve wound up at third with a triple, causing Hernandez and Eric Chavez to be intentionally walked. Saenz drove Worrell's second pitch off the warning track to win it.
Worrell was pitching out of role. Neither anointed closer Mike Timlin nor left-handed setup man Buddy Groom was available because of his recent workload. Worrell, considered the staff's long reliever, pitched a perfect 10th before trying to press his success in the 11th.
"We're OK. It kind of goes in cycles. Some guys will throw good, other guys won't," said Trombley. "The whole idea is to pick each other up. We're OK. We won six in a row. It should have been seven. Now we'll start another streak in Chicago."
The Orioles' bullpen has allowed at least one run in 11 of 16 games in which it has appeared. The five blown saves equals the total of last season's second half. Of 25 runners inherited, a disturbing 15 have scored. Only their record allows an opportunity for circumspection.
"Any time you win a series, especially on the road, you can't be disappointed," said first baseman Will Clark. "Sure, you want to win this game. We had our chances. But they're a good ballclub and we won two out of three. That's nothing to be embarrassed about."
A win would have been especially sweet for Johnson, who made his first appearance since being recalled from Rochester. Optioned March 28 after six traumatic exhibition starts, the ordeal initially traumatized Johnson, who was asked to leave Mike Hargrove's office before returning a second time. Johnson argued he was given insufficient notice by Hargrove and his coaching staff. Instead of concentrating on results, Johnson said, he continued to tinker with his pitch assortment.
Angry, Johnson gave three dominant performances at Rochester.
Last night's performance was not as taut but especially determined. "I felt strong. I don't know what it was. I just didn't feel good out there on the mound," Johnson said. "I guess I could be encouraged by getting that when I'm not feeling my best."
Soft-tossing left-hander Mark Mulder, a veteran of only 25 professional starts, became only the seventh starting pitcher in A's history to win his major-league debut when he defeated the Cleveland Indians April 18. His presence forced changes to Hargrove's lineup as Rich Amaral spelled Anderson in center field, Jeff Conine swung for Harold Baines as designated hitter and Jesus Garcia received his third start of the season in place of Delino DeShields.
For three innings, the precocious Mulder achieved perfection against a lineup that entered with a .309 average.
In the fourth, he ran into one-out trouble when Bordick reached on a double to left-center field. Bordick has hit safely in 16 of the Orioles' 17 games and shares the AL lead with 24 RBIs.
This time, Bordick's value was as catalyst. Surhoff followed with a single that scored him for a 1-0 lead and Belle followed with the inning's third consecutive hit to create a first-and-third chance for Cal Ripken.
No longer pressing for 3,000 hits, Ripken sat on Mulder's changeup and slashed career hit No. 3,007 with two outs, scoring Surhoff. The hit tied Ripken for 22nd place all-time with Al Kaline. The RBI moved Ripken past Kaline into a three-way tie for 26th with Harmon Killebrew and Rogers Hornsby. Riding an eight-game hitting streak, Ripken remains on a tear since reaching his career milestone in Minnesota April 15.
The 2-0 lead extended the Orioles' penchant for playing from ahead. They've scored first in 13 of 17 games and never trailed in the series until Saenz's game-winner.
Johnson was given a chance to buckle in the fifth inning but was saved by his own resilience and an umpire's forgiving call.
Making his first start for Hargrove, Johnson would last six innings and 107 pitches.
Nowhere was the gangly mechanics and uncertainty that pocked his spring training. Instead, Johnson gave a mature presentation.
Frank Menechino led off with a double followed by a walk to Rich Becker and a liner that Belle played into a single, loading the bases.
Johnson attacked rather than wilt. He got Jason Giambi to hit a sacrifice fly, struck out designated hitter John Jaha then got Stairs to loft a soft fly at Surhoff.
Already the series' tragic figure because of his failures in key rallies the previous two nights, Stairs became the victim of an apparently missed call by third base umpire Jerry Layne. Stairs' big swing caused Surhoff to initially break back. He recovered to make a dive at the ball then scrambled to his feet looking for a place to throw. Layne called Stairs out, bringing manager Art Howe out to make a futile plea.
Had the catch been ruled a trap, two runs would have scored with the inning continuing. Instead, Johnson retained his lead and returned for an uneventful sixth.
Hargrove reached for left-handed reliever B. J. Ryan in the seventh and received two strikeouts. The third hitter, Menechino, became the inning's key when he launched a drive over Amaral's head. However, Amaral scrambled back and made a lunging catch.
Opponent: Chicago White Sox
Site: Comiskey Park, Chicago
Time: 8: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (0-1, 3.41) vs. White Sox's Cal Eldred (0-0, 8.78)