NEW YORK - There is no rhyme or reason anymore. The Orioles lost five straight games to the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays and small-market Montreal Expos, but found a way to beat the National League's winningest pitcher of 1999.
Perhaps more important, they came from behind to present Mike Mussina with a well-deserved 4-2 victory over the New York Mets in the opener of a three-game interleague series at Shea Stadium.
Mets ace Mike Hampton, who won 22 games for the Houston Astros a year ago, held the struggling Orioles lineup in check for six innings, but B. J. Surhoff launched a game-tying home run in the seventh to spark a three-run rally that propelled Mussina to only his third victory in nine decisions.
Enter the beleaguered Orioles bullpen, which also stepped forward in a big way. Setup man Mike Trombley pitched two perfect innings and closer Mike Timlin pitched a slam-dunk ninth to record his fifth save.
What looked like another run-of-the-mill Orioles loss turned dramatically when Surhoff's ninth homer of the year - and second of three hits - cleared the left-center-field fence to lead off the seventh.
"I hit it hard," said Surhoff, "but I thought I had hit another one [in the fourth] and the wind held it in.
Fill-in second baseman Mark Lewis followed with a single and manager Mike Hargrove started pushing buttons, hoping to squeeze out another run or two and turn around a disheartening road trip. He had Harold Baines ready to pinch hit for Mussina - who had thrown 119 pitches through six innings - but changed his mind and sent his starting pitcher to the plate to sacrifice.
He had Harold Baines ready to pinch hit for Mussina - who had thrown 119 pitches through six innings - but changed his mind and sent the luckless Moose to the plate to sacrifice.
Mussina bunted into a force play, leaving Hargrove to remove him for a pinch runner and set himself up for a second-guess in his first game back after taking a two-day leave to attend his son's high school graduation.
No second-guessing would be necessary. Delino DeShields replaced Mussina after he had moved to second on a walk to leadoff man Rich Amaral. Mike Bordick followed with a single to center to drive home the go-ahead run and Albert Belle blooped a double into right to give the Orioles a two-run advantage.
The bullpen, so undependable for much of the early season, did the rest, Trombley and Timlin combining to retire the final nine batters in succession.
Maybe it wasn't Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens, but the pitching matchup last night featured last year's second-best starter from each league.
Mussina finished second to Martinez in the balloting for the Cy Young Award in the American League and Hampton was the runner-up to Randy Johnson in the National League. Both have had trouble replicating last year's level, but it still figured to be one of the best pitching matchups of the first interleague interlude.
The only question was whether Mussina could catch a break. He has fallen victim to a discouraging combination of poor offensive support and faulty relief pitching. In his previous four starts, he gave up as many as three runs only once, but came away with just one win.
His luck didn't change in the early innings last night. The Mets nearly batted around in thesecond and scored two runs without managing a solid hit.
Mussina got the first two outs, but Melvin Mora bunted for a hit and Hampton bounced a single off the glove of Cal Ripken to keep the inning alive for brand-new Mets leadoff hitter Jason Tyner.
Tyner, who was called up from Triple-A Norfolk yesterday to fill a glaring void since Rickey Henderson departed, had singled off Mussina's glove in his first major-league at-bat. This time, he fought off an 0-2 count and poked a soft fly ball into left field to bring home the first run.
Mussina did the rest, walking two batters in a row for the first time this season to force in another run.
"This was a game when you have to come up with a different plan than what you wanted to take out there," Mussina said. "I didn't have my best stuff, so I had to find another way... It was not so much being frustrated out there. It was just wondering why I couldn't get the ball over the plate. For 10 or 15 pitches, I just couldn't throw the ball over the plate.
"Fortunately, it only lasted about 15 pitches. It was a bad inning in a game I ended up winning, so I can't complain much."
It was also the battle of two of baseball's best hitting pitchers. Last year as a member of the Houston Astros, Hampton became the first pitcher to win 20-or-more games and hit over .300 (.311) since Catfish Hunter went 21-11 and batted .350 for the Oakland A's in 1971. Mussina obviously doesn't get much opportunity to swing the bat, but he also has proven to be a much better-than-average hitting pitcher - driving in four runs with three hits in interleague competition last year.
Hampton quickly showed why he has gained such a solid reputation with the bat, reaching base on a pair of infield singles in his first two at-bats. Mussina, apparently possessing the same buzzard's luck at the plate as he has displayed on the mound, hit a line drive to left field in his first at-bat, but right at Tyner.
The Orioles sliced the Mets' lead in half in the top of the third when leadoff man Rich Amaral lined a one-out single and Mike Bordick walked to set up an eventual two-out RBI single by Belle, playing his first game ever at Shea Stadium.
Belle continues to show signs of his annual summer breakout. He singled in the first inning to extend his hitting streak to eight games and has now hit safely in 16 of his last 17 games.
If only the rest of the club would follow suit. The Orioles' offense went to sleep just as the pitching staff was finally coming out of a frightening early-season slump. Just the day before, Sidney Ponson turned in one of his best performances, only to come up on the wrong end of a 1-0 loss in Montreal.
The Orioles always seem to be moving decisively in one direction - usually in the wrong direction. They squandered a strong April with a 2-15 slump, briefly snapped out of it with a modest winning streak, but arrived in New York with five straight losses.
"It's not any fun," Hargrove said before the game. "That's a roller coaster you don't want to get on. You want to be consistent with what you do. It's easier on your emotions. Being streaky is a tough way to go."