Orioles go long, but lose 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.

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

A two-out single by Johnny Damon began the decisive rally. An errant pickoff throw resulted in a two-base error, and Roberts' next pitch sailed over Shea Hillenbrand's head to score Damon and give the Orioles their 26th loss in 30 games.

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.

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

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

The Orioles' rookie starter 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 knuckler - 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. Their next loss, or an Anaheim victory, will close the lid on their season. The Orioles' has been nailed shut for a while.

Facing someone like Wakefield seemed like a cruel prank. The Orioles' offense, which would have struggled before last night 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 ground out.

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, and Wakefield pushed across a 55 mph knuckler.

If this was a pitching duel, it was being fought with cooked spaghetti. Even plate umpire Chuck Meriwether had difficulty with Wakefield. He rose to call time in the seventh as Wakefield delivered another knuckler, and the ball sailed past Mirabelli's mitt and almost hit Meriwether in the head.

In keeping with his pattern since joining the Orioles, Stephens needed a few innings to find his comfort level. He faced 12 batters through the second, then struck out the side in the third. The bat flew out of Brian Daubach's hands as he swung through a curveball and landed about 20 feet beyond first base.

Manny Ramirez tried to duck a curve in the fifth, the ball starting out toward his head, and got hit on top of the left shoulder as he crouched.

Stephens' next curve, clocked at 59 mph, was pulled into right field by Cliff Floyd, but both runners were stranded.

The first inning could have been much worse for Stephens. Johnny Damon reached on a bunt single - an appropriate method on this night - and stole second. Garciaparra walked with one out, and Damon scored on single by Ramirez.

Gibbons made a diving catch in right to rob Floyd, with Garciaparra tagging from third. Daubach singled before Stephens struck out Mirabelli to end the inning and keep the Red Sox's lead at 2-0.

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