TORONTO - It was the kind of play you really can't practice.
Tie score, two outs, bottom of the 10th inning, bases loaded, and a ball gets lined into the left-center field gap toward the Green Monster at Fenway Park.
When it happened to the Orioles on Thursday night, the entire bench held its breath, because if that ball off Bill Mueller's bat falls in, the Boston Red Sox win.
What's worse, it put left fielder Larry Bigbie and center fielder Luis Matos, two promising young outfielders, on a direct collision course.
"That's the game right there," Bigbie said. "You don't want to take your eye off it. It's a do-or-die play, and we were both going for it."
Said Matos: "I might hit Bigbie, but we're both going to try to catch it because that's the ballgame."
When the ball left Mueller's bat, Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli was thinking less about a collision than a loss. The score had been tied 7-7 since the fifth inning, and Mazzilli thought it was going off the wall, for sure.
But by late in the game, a stiff breeze was blowing in over the Green Monster, and that helped hold it in the air. That same wind almost knocked down the go-ahead home run by Miguel Tejada in the 11th inning, which propelled the Orioles to a 12-7 victory.
Matos and Bigbie converged at full speed, and at the last second, Bigbie pulled up, allowing Matos to reach out for the back-handed catch. Matos said he tried yelling, but with the crowd noise, he knew neither player could hear each other.
"I glanced and saw him in my peripheral vision and kind of pulled away," Bigbie said. "It's just good he came up with the ball."
For Matos, the play had even deeper meaning. He entered last night hitless in his past 10 at-bats, leaving his batting average at .138.
"I don't have any concern," Mazzilli said of Matos' slow start at the plate. "He's a guy that may need one game to get going. That's an important ingredient for a player to have, if you're not doing one [element] well, do the other."
Cust remains in the fold
The Orioles were pleased yesterday when outfielder Jack Cust cleared waivers, allowing them to outright him to Triple-A Ottawa. Cust had been designated for assignment after hitting just .176 this spring with 19 strikeouts in 51 at-bats.
He also struck out in his lone plate appearance for the Orioles this season.
"He didn't have a good spring training, and that hurt him," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "I think he can help clubs at the big league level, but he needs to get his swing right, and hopefully he can do that at Ottawa."
Beattie said Cust will probably be activated on Ottawa's roster Sunday.
"He has a high-maintenance swing that he has to straighten out," Beattie said. "I think he lost his confidence, too. He's a good kid, and he really wants to play baseball."
After allowing just three hits in seven scoreless innings on Thursday night, the Orioles' bullpen ranked as the American League's best in several categories, including ERA (2.09), innings pitched (38 2/3 ) and opponent's batting average (.196).
"My guys pretty much know their roles," Mazzilli said. "They've been outstanding."
The Orioles had nobody warming up in the ninth inning with the score tied, but Mazzilli said it would be wrong to assume left-hander B.J. Ryan would have gone out to earn the save if the team had taken the lead.
Boston had the switch-hitting Mueller, and the left-handed hitting David Ortiz coming to the plate, but Mazzilli said he would have quickly gotten Jorge Julio ready to start the inning.
"I wasn't going to have B.J. go back out and face Mueller and Ortiz," Mazzilli said. "That's [Julio's] job. He's the closer, and we've got to live and die with him."
The Orioles didn't score, so Ryan pitched another inning. Julio got the call in the 11th with a five-run lead. In his first appearance since he gave up the game-tying home run to Robert Fick on April 9 at Tampa Bay, Julio retired the side with 14 pitches, including two strikeouts.
"Even though it wasn't a save situation," Mazzilli said, "he was still pretty good."
Around the horn
After their four-hour, 28-minute game Thursday night in Boston, the Orioles didn't arrive at their Toronto hotel until 4 a.m. ... Double-A Bowie first baseman Mike Huggins needed appendectomy surgery on Thursday night after being rushed to the hospital in Erie, Pa. ... Tejada is 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position on the season after going hitless in three such at-bats last night. He got robbed of an RBI, however, when first base umpire Frank Cuzzi called him out on a chopper to third baseman Eric Hinske. Replays showed that Tejada beat the throw, and Brian Roberts would have scored on the play. Mazzilli went on the field to contest the call with Cuzzi, to no avail. Tejada also flied out to the warning track in the eighth.