CINCINNATI - The poor television reception in the visiting clubhouse at Great American Ball Park had a group of players straining to read a score yesterday. One game was available to them, the only one worth watching anyway. And no matter how fuzzy the picture, they weren't going to tune out, not with the Boston Red Sox taking a severe beating.
Once the Orioles entered their dugout last night, they knew the Red Sox had lost big in Chicago. The team closest to them in the American League East could fall another game off the pace. Even with the All-Star break another month away, it's acceptable to check the competition.
At least the Orioles recognized that team, wavy lines and all. Playing the Cincinnati Reds for the first time in the regular season, they got a three-run homer from Melvin Mora and four clutch outs from the back end of their bullpen in a 4-3 interleague victory.
Mora concluded a nine-pitch at-bat against Reds starter Aaron Harang in the third with a three-run shot to left-center, a 93-mph fastball crashing into the facing of the second deck, an estimated 424 feet from home plate.
"I knew I hit it pretty good but I didn't know how far it would go," Mora said. "In this ballpark, the ball flies."
Ken Griffey homered off left-hander John Parrish with two outs in the eighth to bring the Reds within a run, tying him with Mel Ott for 18th place on the all-time list at 511, but Jorge Julio and B.J. Ryan struck out the last four batters. Ryan notched his 16th save, and the first against his former team.
Griffey had the only hit off the Orioles' bullpen in 3 2/3 innings. Julio redeemed himself slightly after allowing two homers in the eighth inning of Tuesday's loss in Pittsburgh.
"I told him, 'Don't try to force it. Pitch here.' And he did," manager Lee Mazzilli said.
The Orioles' last visit to Cincinnati came on Oct. 11, 1970 in Game 2 of the World Series. Johnny Bench is gone. So are Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and the rest of the Big Red Machine. This team is 24-36, its record padded by a three-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays earlier in the week.
No matter the outcome, the Orioles were assured of being in first place for the 49th day this season. From 1998 through 2004, they led the division or were tied for first a total of 38 days, the latest on April 25, 2000.
With the Red Sox losing to the Cubs yesterday, 14-6, the Orioles moved four games ahead despite continuing their longest road trip of the season, a 14-day, four-city odyssey that hasn't left them winded.
"This team is banged up, but they don't know they're banged up," Mazzilli said, pointing to the clubhouse. "That's the way they go out and play."
Felipe Lopez led off the third with a home run, the lone hit allowed by Orioles starter Rodrigo Lopez (5-2) through four innings. The right-hander escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the fifth, but the Reds filled them again in the sixth, bringing reliever Steve Kline into the game to face Adam Dunn with one out.
Kline threw a wild pitch to reduce the Orioles' lead to 3-2, but Dunn popped to third and Felipe Lopez grounded out.
Reds starters had a 12.79 ERA in the Tampa Bay series, but the offense churned out 34 runs, including a season-high 14 on Thursday. Rodrigo Lopez was a bit more stingy, retiring 12 of the first 13 batters he faced.
He got into trouble in the fifth when the Reds loaded the bases with none out. Jason LaRue bounced into a force at home, with Mora bobbling the ball and ruining any chance at a double play. Harang waved at a 91-mph fastball for the second out, and Ryan Freel popped to shallow left with the count full.
"I was pretty confident," Lopez said. "I was thinking just give up one run with a double play, but it worked out."
Lopez was gone in the sixth after Rafael Palmeiro's error that followed consecutive singles. He threw 74 pitches.
"He was getting the ball up," Mazzilli said, "and I didn't want him in a situation where he's got to make the perfect pitch."
Lopez was coming off his shortest outing of the season, a three-inning no-decision in Detroit. He's lost only once since April 21, but the streak includes five no-decisions, including starts where he's allowed eight, seven and six earned runs.
Consecutive doubles by Mora and Miguel Tejada in the eighth increased the Orioles' lead to 4-2. Tejada's ball sliced away from Dunn, who should have made the catch.
Harang (4-4) struck out 10 batters, including Sammy Sosa three times. Mora refused to go down in the third, fouling off three two-strike pitches and proving just as stubborn as David Newhan, who also battled back after being down and drew a crucial two-out walk to extend the inning.
"It seems like I'm 1-2 every at-bat," said Newhan, who's hitting .200. "It makes you wonder if I can get on more than once a night, if it would really explode into something."