The Orioles finally moved into a pennant race last night, even while 14 games below .500 and looking up at three teams that barely come into focus. It isn't how they intended to get there when breaking camp this spring, but it's all they've got.
Their fingerprints could appear all over the American League West, where only two games separate Seattle and Oakland. A division title is at stake. A wild-card berth hangs in the balance. And a club with seemingly little to play for besides evaluating its young talent and the condition of Cal Ripken's back has assumed the role of spoiler.
They'll need to do a better job of it.
Defensive lapses and an inability to entice the Mariners into chasing his pitches conspired against Jose Mercedes, who lost for only the second time since the break, 10-2, before 38,510 at Camden Yards.
Aaron Sele, on the verge of signing with the Orioles this winter, outlasted Mercedes by going seven innings to silently taunt an organization that could be scrambling to plug leaks in its rotation next season.
Mercedes (12-6), a candidate for Most Valuable Oriole as ballots were distributed to the media yesterday, was removed after the fifth with the Mariners leading 6-2. It was his shortest outing as a starter since a disastrous three-inning appearance in Philadelphia in early July.
Rickey Henderson scored twice in the first three innings for Seattle (81-66), moving past Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron into second place on the all-time runs list with 2,175. He also helped the Mariners keep their division margin intact and break a seven-game losing streak in Baltimore.
The Orioles (66-81) finish up with Seattle this weekend before playing four against Oakland - including Tuesday's makeup doubleheader - to conclude the homestand. The Athletics remain one game behind Cleveland for the wild card.
The final road trip of the season will take the Orioles to Boston, which is two games behind Cleveland. They return to Camden Yards to play Toronto, which trailed the Indians by three games entering last night, and the New York Yankees.
With so much at stake for the other clubs, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove must balance the need to field a competitive lineup and give less experienced players an opportunity.
"You want to put your best team on the field, but that's the goal every day you go out," Hargrove said.
"We are in a situation where we need to look at some young guys, but it's not that tough because the other side of it is that young guys are who we have."
This is strange territory for Hargrove, who won five straight AL Central titles with the Indians. He'd much rather be lining up his rotation and resting certain veterans for the postseason, but seems to be adapting. By playing spoilers, the last few weeks take on greater significance. He'll take motivation wherever it comes.
"It helps to have something to shoot for," Hargrove said. "If you're not in the pennant race yourself, it's nice to be able to play the teams that are and make them work for their spot. It's nice to have something to shoot for, no matter what."
Mercedes was searching for his 10th victory in the second half, which would have broken a tie with Boston's Pedro Martinez for the league lead.
Sele lost his shutout in the fifth on a two-run double by Delino DeShields, but reminded the Orioles of the commanding presence he offers in a rotation.
Sele had reached agreement on a four-year contract before majority owner Peter Angelos withdrew the offer amid concerns over the results of Sele's physical. Seattle general manager Pat Gillick, with his own ties to the Orioles, swooped in and signed the Washington native to a two-year, $14 million deal.
"Really, it hasn't crossed my mind," he said. "Maybe in the next day or two. There's so much more to focus on."
Last night's win was the 15th for Sele, three more than Mercedes' club-leading total. Mercedes allowed a first-inning run on Henderson's leadoff triple into the right-field corner and a slow roller by Mike Cameron.
Mercedes issued five walks, giving him 13 in his past 11 innings, before Leslie Brea entered. "I don't think it was a control problem," Mercedes said. "They weren't swinging at my pitches. It's not like I was wild. I knew what I was doing."
Making his second appearance with the Orioles, Brea walked the bases loaded in the sixth, but got away clean when Mora made a diving catch of a liner by Javier.
It was the Orioles' second defensive gem of the night. Ripken dived to his left to reach a sharp grounder by Oliver in the second inning and begin a double play that nullified a leadoff walk to Buhner. Ripken was making his fourth start in the field since coming off the disabled list.
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mariners' Jamie Moyer (12-9, 5.48) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (9-14, 3.85)