Without throwing a single pitch yesterday, Pat Hentgen already felt like a winner. If only the score had made it official.
Given his first start with the Orioles in 16 months, Hentgen surrendered two home runs in the sixth inning and couldn't prevent another sweep by the Anaheim Angels, who took a 6-2 victory before 27,665 at Camden Yards.
The Orioles (64-77) went 1-5 on the homestand and have lost six games to the Angels in the past 10 days. Held to five hits yesterday and needing a bases-loaded walk to obtain their second run, they turned in an offensive performance rivaled only by the Ravens in futility.
The Angels never swept the Orioles in Baltimore until this weekend, but their season hasn't been typical. Their 88-54 record is the best after 142 games in franchise history. They've won 10 in a row, and they continue to lead Seattle by four games for the American League wild card. They trail Oakland by two in the AL West.
With 14 losses in their past 15 games and no playoff races to occupy them, the Orioles directed their attention to a pitcher who hadn't started in the majors since May 16, 2001. Drama comes in many forms, and with varying medical records.
Hentgen made nine starts last season before needing ligament-transplant surgery in his right elbow. He rehabbed at the minor-league complex in Sarasota, Fla., pitched for five of the Orioles' affiliates while regaining his arm strength - throwing 88 pitches Monday at Frederick - and convinced the Orioles he was ready.
All he needed was to stay calm.
"I was a little nervous. It's been a while," he said. "I was nervous at Frederick, Bowie, Aberdeen, all the places I rehabbed the whole month of August. I think that everybody's nervous. When they tell you they're not, they're lying."
The score was tied 1-1 going into the sixth, but Troy Glaus hit a three-run shot before Hentgen could get the first out. Bengie Molina took him deep with the bases empty, and manager Mike Hargrove removed him with a 5-1 deficit. Glaus also homered off Rick Bauer in the eighth.
Four of the runs off Hentgen were earned after Jeff Conine booted a sharp grounder from Garret Anderson to open the sixth. Hentgen threw 99 pitches in 5 1/3 innings, allowing nine hits and striking out one. His fastball reached 89 mph, but also dipped to 85 when Scott Spiezio singled on the first pitch after Conine's error.
Activated in the morning, Hentgen retired six of the first seven batters. He threw a wild pitch while walking Tim Salmon in the third inning, and David Eckstein raced home for a 1-0 lead. Eckstein had reached on a bunt single to extend his career-high hitting streak to 15 games.
Hentgen needed only 10 pitches to complete the fourth and stranded two runners in the fifth, including Darin Erstad, who also reached on a bunt. He had gone far enough in the sixth, which he began at 81 pitches, when Hargrove emerged from the dugout and pointed to his bullpen before crossing the first base line.
Hentgen left to polite applause from a crowd seemingly unaware of the road he traveled to get here.
"This was like he was starting his second career," catcher Brook Fordyce said. "To go out there and pitch and not know what he had, this was a test for him. I can say he pitched as well as I expected."
"The first inning," Hargrove said, "he was so nervous and excited that everything was up. He didn't find his curveball until the middle of the game, but he adjusted well and it was good to see him on the mound."
Hargrove will keep Hentgen in a six-man rotation that might not include Jason Johnson in tomorrow's doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Johnson has been bothered by nausea and stomach pains since Thursday's start against Texas, and his status is uncertain for the New York series. No matter what shuffling is necessary, Hentgen will pitch against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park during a four-game series that begins Friday.
"I'm trying to look at the positives," Hentgen said. "I look at the first five innings and try to build on that. It's disappointing because we were in a nail-biter. It's a little frustrating, but I'll try to stay positive."
The day also held special meaning to Fordyce, a close friend who shares his apartment with Hentgen. They fish together and spend hours talking baseball. The topic heated up in recent days.
"We were saying how it would be nice if I could catch him, and it worked out that way. We really had a fun time building up to it," Fordyce said. "Pat is a competitor. You can't take that out of him. That's why he's here."
The Orioles tied the score in the third against Angels starter Jarrod Washburn (17-5) on a leadoff double by Jerry Hairston and sacrifice fly by Conine. Melvin Mora walked with the bases loaded in the seventh to reduce Anaheim's lead to 5-2, but Conine lined to center for the final out.