TORONTO - As a foreigner in his old home stadium, Orioles pitcher Pat Hentgen received some polite applause when he took the mound last night, nothing resounding but audible nonetheless inside the sterile confines of SkyDome.
Two women behind the Orioles' dugout wore Toronto Blue Jays jerseys with Hentgen's name and No. 41 on the back, one in white and the other in blue. They were fans clinging to better times, both for the Blue Jays and for Hentgen.
Making his fourth start in his return from reconstructive elbow surgery, Hentgen finished his season with another frustrating loss.
Hentgen's old friend Carlos Delgado drove in two runs, and Esteban Loaiza pitched a five-hitter, as the Blue Jays defeated the Orioles, 5-1, to complete the three-game sweep.
That made it nine losses in a row for the Orioles, something that sounded unthinkable a month ago and now seems like an inevitable part of this trip into the abyss. They are 4-29 in their past 33 games, and old-timers such as bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks are comparing it to 1988, the year the Orioles lost their first 21 games.
After 33 games that season, the Orioles were also 4-29. In a way, this has felt even more frustrating for Hendricks.
"Every game I come to the ballpark, I feel we've got a chance to win," Hendricks said. "In '88, we didn't have that. We didn't have a chance."
The struggles by the team have made it even tougher for Hentgen to stomach his own performance this month, but he is still in recovery, so Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley were pointing to the positives last night.
Hentgen (0-4) allowed five runs in six innings, dropping his ERA 11 points to 7.77. With a fastball that reached 88 mph, he had one strikeout and one walk.
Delgado hit a fastball off the center-field wall for a run-scoring double in the third inning and smashed a changeup into the center-field seats for his 32nd home run in the sixth.
Asked if there's anything positive he'll be able to take into the offseason, Hentgen said, "Other than my arm feels great, not a whole lot. The results were terrible for four games, and it's frustrating, but I feel that I still can compete."
The Orioles hold a $6 million option on Hentgen's contract for next season, but they will likely exercise the $600,000 buyout and then negotiate with Hentgen as a free agent.
Orioles reliever Buddy Groom, for one, hopes Hentgen returns. Groom talked about Hentgen's positive influence on the team's young pitchers last night, while several of the rookies went through the hazing ritual of dressing up for the flight home in skimpy costumes usually designed for women.
Rodrigo Lopez had the Hooter's waitress outfit, John Stephens was a hula dancer, and Travis Driskill was a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, complete with a yellow wig.
"They look up to him," Groom said of Hentgen. "Hopefully we're going to keep him around. I think by next year, come spring training, he's going to be close to what he was before he got hurt."
Hentgen won a Cy Young Award with the Blue Jays in 1996, and he was part of their World Series teams of 1992 and 1993. With Chris Carpenter and Luke Prokopec expected to miss most of next season, Toronto needs pitching, and if the Orioles don't bring Hentgen back, the Blue Jays just might.
This was the first time Hentgen had ever faced his former team, and he was grateful for the reception he received.
"Everyone knows I loved playing here; there's no question," Hentgen said. "I was lucky enough to be a part of two World Series teams and play before 50,000, so I've got a lot of great memories here.
"But the bottom line is I'm a Baltimore Oriole, and I'm proud of it. I tried to go out there and do my best to win the game, and it just didn't happen."
Loaiza (9-10) had a 9.97 ERA for the month of September coming into the game, but he had little problem against an Orioles offense that has scored three runs or fewer in 24 of their past 33 games.
And this time they couldn't do nearly enough to save Hentgen from another loss.
"Given all the circumstances," Hargrove said, "I think Pat is slowly, surely getting back to where he needs to be."
Added Wiley: "All of his pitches looked just like before when he got his rhythm and he got his arm slot, and his extension right, which gives me a lot of optimism. It's coming back pretty fast, faster than most guys who have had this surgery. I have no doubt, next year he can be a winning pitcher."
Will that be for the Orioles?
"I hope so," Hentgen said. "I've got my fingers crossed, and it's pretty much out of my control at this point."
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Yankees' Andy Pettitte (12-5, 3.40) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (7-8, 4.15)