OAKLAND, Calif. - Whatever hope might have been generated by the just-completed 6-3 homestand and whatever optimism may have been sprouted by an improving pitching staff perished last night inside Network Associates Coliseum. The Orioles suffered a flashback to April as they managed to turn leads of 8-1 and 12-7 into a 13-12, 10-inning loss to the Oakland Athletics.
Instead of gaining a half-game on the American League East lead, the Orioles were reminded of their horrendous road woes. Their biggest blown lead of the season dropped them to 10-25 away from Camden Yards and left them with their 16th blown save this season.
At 30-37, the Orioles are riding a three-game losing streak and are only one game better than at the same juncture last season. They arrived there by losing a pitching-optional game that saw runs scored in clusters of six, five, four and four, a game that showed starting pitcher Pat Rapp unable to be trusted with an 8-1 lead and one in which manager Mike Hargrove got himself tossed in an attempt to protect his undermanned bullpen.
Of the Orioles' 16 hits, none came against a drawn infield after they placed runners at second and third with none out in the ninth inning.
The first-place A's won their sixth straight game when pinch hitter Jeremy Giambi, the game's 101st hitter, reached Mike Timlin (2-2) for a lined single to left field to score his brother, Jason.
One would think an 8-1 lead safe given the Orioles' recently improved pitching. One would need to think again as Rapp's loss of command, an uncertain entrance by Chuck McElroy and a two-run strikeout pulled the A's within a run in the space of 42 pitches.
A carnival-like rally that included four hits - and just one for extra bases - necessitated Rapp's removal with an 8-2 lead and none out in the third inning.
Coming off Sunday's 21-run pounding of the Kansas City Royals, the A's scored their six runs on two bases-loaded walks, a two-run double and a bizarre wild pitch-strikeout that bounced through catcher Charles Johnson and resulted in an error and two runs. The two pitching staffs combined for 82 pitches and five mound visits during the 55-minute inning, which took longer than the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals.
There was no Hack-a-Shaq to delay this event. Just Rapp and McElroy playing keepaway from the strike zone and A's manager Art Howe using three pitchers during the Orioles' five-run half of the inning.
The Orioles gave every indication that last night would be a cruise. They took a 2-0 first-inning lead against A's starter Mark Mulder before making their first out.
A walk to Mike Bordick, batting leadoff for the first time since Aug. 13, 1995, while with the A's, preceded Delino DeShields' RBI double and B. J. Surhoff's run-scoring double, which extended his hitting streak to 13 games. The A's didn't get an out until Albert Belle attempted to stretch a single only to be thrown out without a slide.
Rapp hinted at his problems by laboring through a two-walk, one-run first inning that ended with two runners in scoring position. The Orioles did everything they could to present Rapp his fifth win of the season and second since April 25. They bumped their lead to 3-1 on Johnson's 14th home run then piled on against Mulder, Luis Vizcaino and Scott Service in the third.
Seven consecutive hitters reached base in the inning, capped by Bordick's three-run double that pushed the lead to seven runs.
Rapp's previous start had seen him fail to protect a 5-0 lead against the Texas Rangers. He couldn't last the minimum five innings in what became a come-from-behind 11-10 win as Hargrove pulled him during a seven-run fourth inning. Last night, Rapp couldn't go that far.
Consecutive singles by Randy Velarde, Jason Giambi and Ben Grieve loaded the bases with none out and brought pitching coach Sammy Ellis to the mound for a visit. Hargrove must have been stewing inside the visitors' dugout because he was on his way to lift Rapp before John Jaha had even cleared the batter's box after drawing a bases-loaded walk to make the score 6-2.
McElroy came on and needed just four pitches to walk Matt Stairs to force home another run. Shortstop Miguel Tejada then drove a double into the left-field corner to pull the A's within 8-5.
What followed was the season's most unusual and one of its most grotesque plays. McElroy bounced a curveball to strike out Ramon Hernandez for what would have been the inning's second out. But the pitch skipped through Johnson, allowing Stairs to score from third. Johnson's throw to first base bounced short and wide of Will Clark, not only allowing Hernandez to reach but Tejado to score from second, creating an 8-7 game.
Rapp's season has been marred by his June. Last night's fiasco left him with 19 earned runs in 16 innings covering four starts. He is 0-2 this month despite receiving 32 runs of support.
The Orioles countered with four runs in the sixth inning to restore a five-run lead. Belle, denied American League Player of the Week recognition despite his 17 RBIs last week, contributed three to this week's count with his seventh home run in six games. The home was also the 375th of his career.
Hargrove then lifted McElroy after three innings, calling on Alan Mills.
Pitching without a safety net as Mike Trombley was unavailable because of the flu and Jose Mercedes because he had pitched 3 1/3 innings in Sunday's loss, Mills surrendered four runs before getting his first out. The rally began with two walks - five of the A's runs last night began as walks - followed by Jason Giambi's two-run double.
With Mills obviously laboring, Hargrove sacrificed himself to buy his pitcher time. He took the unusual move of a mound visit to talk with a reliever, waiting for plate umpire Scott Higgins to approach. When Higgins arrived, Hargrove refused to say whether he wanted another pitcher and an argument ensued that resulted in Hargrove's ejection. Mills had to remain. Two pitches after the argument, Grieve drove a home run to right field to complete the A's four-run answer for a 12-11 game.
Mills remained and benefited from DeShields' spectacular running catch of a pop-up to begin an inning-ending double play.
Buddy Groom lost the last piece of the lead in the seventh after replacing Mills with two outs. Extending a rite of passage for Orioles pitchers last night, Groom walked the first hitter he faced then watched him score on Velarde's two-out double through the left-center-field gap.
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Network Associates Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.
Time: 3:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (4-3, 4.63) vs. Athletics' Tim Hudson (7-2, 4.10)