The Orioles found heroes in different places last night to rescue them from themselves. Rather than mourn another blown ninth-inning lead, third baseman Cal Ripken delivered a 4-2 win over the Seattle Mariners with a one-out, two-run homer off former teammate Jose Mesa.
What might have become an ugly scene in front of 37,747 at Camden Yards instead became the Orioles' third win in 18 games as Ripken's homer erased a blown 2-0 lead by Mike Timlin (1-1) in the top half of the inning. It also helped celebrate eight shutout innings by starter Pat Rapp and newfound middle reliever Jason Johnson. Bases-empty home runs by center fielder Brady Anderson and designated hitter Harold Baines to lead off the first two innings also helped to give the Orioles their first win in five games.
Rapp became the second Orioles starter in three games to give his strongest start of the season, completing seven innings on 113 pitches, 66 of them strikes, before giving way to Johnson.
In his second relief appearance with the Orioles, Johnson struck out the first batter he faced, second baseman Mark McLemore, on three pitches. Shortstop Alex Rodriguez then singled to extend his hitting streak to 19 games only to be caught stealing by Charles Johnson's perfect strike. Jason Johnson then left the field to a standing ovation after retiring John Olerud on a grounder to second base.
Timlin then appeared seeking his fourth save. Edgar Martinez singled on a broken-bat flare to lead off the ninth. Timlin then jumped ahead of Jay Buhner, 0-2, before feeding him a fastball that the Mariners right fielder turned 429 feet for a tie game.
Camden Yards erupted over what has become a predictable ending. The blown save was the Orioles' 13th in 19 chances and threatened them with their fourth loss when leading after eight innings, their seventh when leading after seven innings and ninth when leading after six. Timlin escaped with a tie only to get another dose of fan outrage.
Rapp had suggested improvement in his previous start May 17 against the Anaheim Angels when he was sabotaged by flaky first-inning defense in a game the Orioles led three times by three runs but ultimately lost. Able to survive six innings with 115 pitches, Rapp surrendered four runs, three of them during a ragged first inning, and surrendered only two hits after escaping.
That game contained the usual suspense associated with a Rapp outing. Not so last night. Against the league's third-highest scoring offense, Rapp created no problems for himself and the Mariners weren't able to manufacture any of their own.
Rapp's masterpiece came with out-of-character strokes. Typically, Rapp starts are drawn out with plenty of deep counts, nibbling and middle-inning exits. Last night, he painted hurriedly, facing five more than the minimum number of hitters through six innings, retiring the side in order in the first and third innings. He pitched into the seventh inning for only the second time in nine starts, moving in and out, up and down with the same movement that he has often attributed as a reason for his labored pace.
The Orioles wasted no time against Mariners starter Gil Meche, who pitched well except for a pair of home runs surrendered to Anderson and Baines.
Anderson's home run came in a reunion of the game's two most prolific leadoff power hitters. His homer was the 39th of his career leading off a game. Recently signed Mariners center fielder Rickey Henderson has led off 77 times with a home run, including wins Saturday and Sunday.
Meche lasted seven innings, surrendering four hits and one walk while pitching with the same efficiency as Rapp. After their two home runs, the Orioles were 2-for-19 entering the eighth inning. They also gave away an out on the bases to end the fifth inning to extend a disturbing trend.
With two outs and runners on first and third, Hargrove ordered a double steal with Anderson and Mike Bordick. The sign was intercepted by the Mariners bench and a pitchout called. Bordick was trapped off third base and tagged in a rundown.
As both pitchers worked at a breakneck pace, the thought of Johnson handling a save situation remained a surprise until he stepped through the center-field gate to inherit a 2-0 lead.
The eighth inning had been Mike Trombley's domain. But recent slippage in New York and Texas has caused Hargrove to hesitate regarding his role. Before May 13, Trombley had been scored upon in only one of his last seven appearances. He suffered his league-tying fourth blown save on May 13 against the Boston Red Sox and has allowed seven of 11 inherited runners to score and allowed seven home runs in 16 innings. In the last week, he and B.J. Ryan, the Orioles' left-handed bridge man, have undertaken mechanical adjustments to rectify missing control.
Johnson became available through happenstance. His scheduled start against the Texas Rangers last Saturday ws rained out, resetting his next start until this Saturday against the Oakland A's. Hargrove is making Johnson available in middle relief through at least tonight but never suggested using the right-hander in such a pivotal point.
Within an hour, the question had changed. Rather than wondering why Johnson had been