Orioles go long, but fall in 15th


Worn out from the nasty treatment they've received in the majors over the past month, when third place was pulled from underneath them like a cheap throw rug, the Orioles decided last night to try their hand at slo-pitch softball.

They ended up in a marathon. They can't win those, either.

Once velocity-challenged starters John Stephens and Tim Wakefield exited, the Orioles got game-tying homers from Jay Gibbons in the ninth inning and Jeff Conine in the 14th before the Boston Red Sox won in the 15th, 5-4, at Camden Yards on a two-base error and wild pitch by Willis Roberts.

A two-out single by Johnny Damon began the decisive rally. An errant pickoff throw moved Damon to third, and he scored when Roberts' next pitch sailed over Shea Hillenbrand's head to give the Orioles their 26th loss in 30 games.

They had another chance to extend play after putting two runners on, but Tony Batista struck out against Wayne Gomes to finally send everyone home and complete Boston's four-game sweep. The Orioles stranded nine, compared with 16 by the Red Sox.

"We haven't laid down all year," manager Mike Hargrove said. "The last month we haven't gotten many breaks, and it would have been real easy for us to feel sorry for ourselves. But for the most part, we've battled every night."

A two-out error by Conine, who failed to catch a routine throw from shortstop Luis Lopez, led to an unearned run off Roberts in the 14th. Benny Agbayani walked before Tony Clark grounded a single into left field to score pinch runner Rickey Henderson. But Conine launched the first pitch from reliever Alan Embree into the seats in left, and the remnants of 24,664 had more baseball to watch.

"That was bittersweet," Hargrove said.

"I don't call that a wash," Conine said. "I screwed up. It was a pretty straight throw all the way there, and at the last minute it cut. It barely tipped my glove."

The last fans wouldn't depart until 4 hours, 43 minutes had elapsed. The Orioles have played four 14-inning games this season. They hadn't gone 15 since Sept. 30, 2001, in New York.

Roberts (5-4) stayed in the game after being drilled in the chest by a Nomar Garciaparra line drive in the 14th. He flopped on the ground after recording the out, adding another dramatic touch to the proceedings.

Hillenbrand almost took a shot of his own as Roberts lost control in the 15th.

"It sure looked like he overthrew some pitches, especially the fastball that got away," Hargrove said. "I didn't get a chance to ask him but I will do that tomorrow. There are some things I want to talk to him about."

Gibbons also connected off Wakefield in the second inning for his fourth multi-homer game this season.

Wakefield didn't allow a hit after Melvin Mora singled in the second, as the Orioles joined the list of teams confounded by his knuckleball.

But manager Grady Little brought in closer Ugueth Urbina to start the ninth, and Gibbons reached the flag court to spare Stephens the loss.

Gibbons was 2-for-3 with three walks. The rest of the lineup went 4-for-46.

Stephens finally matched up against someone with less heat. Stephens brought his usual maddening stuff, including a low-80s fastball and looping curve. The Red Sox exchanged Pedro Martinez's power for Wakefield's signature pitch -the equivalent of trading in a Ferrari for a moped.

Batters waited in the box, weight shifted to their back legs and bats cocked in the air as they tried to time pitches that took forever to reach the plate. All that was missing was a keg of beer and a slaughter rule.

The Red Sox made the quickest adjustment, scoring twice off Stephens in the first inning, but the Orioles tied the game in the second. Hillenbrand provided another lead with a bases-empty homer in the fifth, and Boston got within two outs of winning in regulation.

Rick Bauer gave the Orioles 3 2/3 hitless innings in relief of Stephens, but they were destined to lose their sixth in a row as they head to Toronto for their final road series of the year. Their only ally is time, which will rescue them from further beatings.

Boston keeps avoiding playoff elimination. Its next loss, or an Anaheim victory, will close the lid on the Red Sox's season. The Orioles' has been nailed shut for a while.

Facing someone like Wakefield seemed like a cruel prank. The Orioles' offense, which has struggled to hit the ball off a tee, chased pitches that darted and danced. They didn't need the challenge or the aggravation.

Talk about a bad combination. Wakefield hadn't allowed more than one earned run in his past seven starts, winning six of them, and the Orioles were batting .219 in their past 29 games. But Gibbons blasted a 69-mph knuckler over the scoreboard in right field, and the Orioles scored the tying run on a single, wild pitch, passed ball and groundout.

It wasn't an omen, it was their entire output against Wakefield, who gave up one hit after the second. It didn't leave the infield.

Stephens struck out catcher Doug Mirabelli in the first inning with a 61-mph curveball. Wakefield countered in the first with a 76-mph fastball and a 61-mph knuckler.

And when these guys dropped down, it had nothing to do with arm slots. One of Stephens' curveballs registered at 56 mph, and Wakefield pushed across a 55-mph knuckler.

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