ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As a pitch from Tampa Bay starter Joe Kennedy hit Tony Batista in the foot last night, forcing in a run in the first inning, the Orioles weren't sure what kind of break they just received.
Should they be grateful for the early lead, or prepared for another health crisis? It's been that kind of season for the Orioles. They keep moving toward .500, but with a noticeable limp.
Fielding a lineup that reflected their mounting injuries and roster limitations, the Orioles lost to the Devil Rays, 4-3, at Tropicana Field when pinch hitter Jared Sandberg doubled off B.J. Ryan with two outs in the ninth inning to score Julio Lugo.
Travis Lee hit a two-run homer off reliever Eric DuBose with two outs in the eighth inning, tying the game and denying Pat Hentgen a win. Lugo began the ninth with a single off Hector Carrasco, and Sandberg's double rolled to the fence in left-center field.
"Being ahead like that," said Larry Bigbie, "it's always a game you want to finish off."
The Orioles were four outs away from getting within a game of .500 for the first time since June 4, and doing it without Jeff Conine, who was found by team physician Dr. Charles Silberstein yesterday to have bursitis in his right biceps area. Manager Mike Hargrove would have gone to closer Jorge Julio if DuBose, who hadn't allowed a run in five relief appearances, recorded the last out in the eighth.
DuBose threw 97 pitches during Friday's start, so last night's outing was the equivalent of a side session. He retired the first five batters before Rocco Baldelli singled and Lee hit his 13th homer.
"You never feel comfortable here," Hargrove said, "but the way DuBose was pitching and the way their lineup was coming up, we felt good about getting to Julio."
It's much worse to lose Conine. He remained in Baltimore yesterday, again removing a hitter from the middle of the lineup.
Conine missed his third straight game, and he could be out much longer. The Orioles will know more after 72 hours when some of the swelling goes down.
"It's not serious, but how much time he'll be down is still open to question," Hargrove said.
"I think it's a relief," vice president Mike Flanagan said, "that there's not a tear or anything major."
Meanwhile, the bullpen is growing more fatigued, and with only one day off until Sept. 1, the Orioles recalled Rick Bauer from Triple-A Ottawa after the game and sent down infielder Carlos Mendez, giving them 13 pitchers for the first time this season.
While the Orioles waited to determine the severity of Conine's injury, they kept B.J. Surhoff and David Segui on the disabled list and patched another hole. Hargrove clutches his lineup card in one hand and a jar of spackle in the other.
Segui's sore left wrist doesn't prevent him from batting left-handed, but he still experiences pain while hitting from the other side. Surhoff was eligible to return Saturday from a strained left quadriceps muscle.
Factor in Melvin Mora's sore right hand, which has kept him from swinging a bat, and the Orioles are challenged long before taking the field each night.
"In the meantime," Flanagan joked, "we'll just do without our three, four and five hitters. And our two."
More personnel moves should come today, with reliever Travis Driskill a candidate to be optioned after allowing runs in 12 of his past 16 appearances.
Down to two healthy reserves after Mendez's demotion, the Orioles could activate Surhoff or Segui.
Only three starters remained from the Opening Day lineup, and none of them batted in the same spot. Deivi Cruz, usually eighth in the order, has hit second in four straight games.
With Conine's flight scheduled to leave Baltimore this morning, Hargrove's bench consisted of only three players. One of them (Robert Machado) wasn't in the organization when the season began, and another (Jack Cust) was at Triple-A Ottawa. Rule 5 shortstop Jose Morban would be in the minors if the Orioles didn't have to expose him to waivers.
But who's complaining? "Anything I say comes out sounding like I'm whining and I'm not going to do that," Hargrove said. "The people we have, we like. Do we wish we had Conine, Segui, Surhoff and Mora? Sure we do, but I don't think you'll find any of us trying to apologize for the people we're playing. They're good people."
With the Devil Rays starting Kennedy, a left-hander, Hargrove had to become even more creative. Besides having Cruz follow leadoff hitter Brian Roberts, he moved up catcher Brook Fordyce to sixth - the first time the catcher has hit that high since April 8, 2001. Jose Leon started at first base and Mendez served as the designated hitter.
Fordyce hit his second homer in three nights, a bases-empty shot in the sixth inning that increased the Orioles' lead to 3-1. He also had a run-scoring single in the first after Batista was nailed in the foot with the bases loaded.
His trade value increasing as teams prepare to set their playoff rosters, Hentgen nearly won for the fourth time in five starts. The only run off him came on Carl Crawford's leadoff homer in the third, but he needed 108 pitches to get through six innings.
"Pat had to battle tonight. He wasn't on top of his game," Hargrove said.
"But he threw well enough to give us a chance to win."
Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Site: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (5-6, 5.69) vs. Devil Rays' Rob Bell (2-2, 6.27)