The Orioles didn't widen their three-game lead in the American League East over the past three nights. The Boston Red Sox wouldn't allow that.
But in a three-game sweep of the Houston Astros, secured by a 5-1 victory last night that featured a dominating performance by starter Rodrigo Lopez before 31,547 at Camden Yards, the Orioles were happy for what they did accomplish.
Playing at home for the first time since a humbling three- game sweep by the Detroit Tigers, the Orioles ( 39-26) didn't trail after the second inning of the series opener Monday, improving their record at Camden Yards to 20-14.
"This is the time when you need to win." said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, who had two hits and two RBIs, but it was his first-inning, run- saving play at second base that manager Lee Mazzilli called the biggest play of the game. "When you are at home, you need to win."
The Orioles, who entered last night with the worst interleague record in the majors since it began in 1997, also evened their interleague record this season to 6-6. Last night marked the first time the Orioles have swept a National League team since they did it to the Montreal Expos in July 1999.
Melvin Mora hit a first-inning two-run home run off Houston starter Wandy Rodriguez, which actually would have been enough for a dialed-in Lopez, who pitched eight innings for the fifth time this season.
Jay Gibbons went 3-for-4 and Miguel Tejada added a sacrifice fly in the seventh, improving his RBI total to 54, the second most in the American League, but the story was clearly Lopez, who controlled the Astros ( 26-38) before Todd Williams closed the game with a scoreless ninth. Rodriguez ( 2-3) gave up seven hits and four earned runs through six innings in taking the loss for the Astros, who had won five straight coming into Baltimore.
Spotting all his pitches but especially benefiting from a sharp curveball, Lopez ( 6-2) gave up just four hits, including a bases- empty home run to Jason Lane. He struck out seven and walked just one. Lopez has lost just once since April 21 .
"I was trying to finish, but [Mazzilli] said I couldn't finish." said Lopez, who tried to talk his way back to the mound to attempt a complete game. "I think he made the right decision. Everything worked out for us."
In his previous two starts, spanning 8 1/3 innings, Lopez had given up nine earned runs and 11 hits, but didn't get a loss in either. His first impression last night wasn't good. Lopez allowed a double to Orlando Palmeiro and Craig Biggio followed with a single, putting men on first and third with just one out. But Lopez rebounded to strike out Astros cleanup hitter Lance Berkman and got out of the inning thanks to a nifty play by Roberts in the hole near second base.
Roberts dived to backhand Morgan Ensberg's chopper up the middle and threw out the Houston third baseman from his knees.
"I think that was the big play of the game." Mazzilli said. "You make a play like that and it pumps you up."
Added Lopez: "When I saw it pass through me, I thought it was going to end up in center field. He reacted pretty quick. I never expected that to happen. That was good for all of us."
Ensberg actually helped the Orioles on the play as he appeared to slow up before the bag, seemingly convinced that he already had the single.
"I've been there before." Roberts said. "I didn't think I had much of a chance to get him."
After Roberts led off the bottom half of the inning with a single, Mora got behind 1-2, fouling off four straight pitches to prolong the at-bat. He then hammered a low, 90-mph fastball 375 feet into the left-field stands. It was Mora's 14th home run and 46th RBI.
"I love it when they pitch me down." said Mora, who has hit safely in 25 of his past 30 games. 'I practice my golf swing. It's good when we score early. It gives Rodrigo a lot of confidence so he can throw any pitch he wants."
After Biggio's single in the first, Lopez retired 11 straight Astros before Lane led off the fifth by hitting Lopez's 3-1 fastball to right for his 10th home run. Lopez shook his head in disgust, opting not to watch the flight of 385-foot shot about 15 rows deep in the left-field stands.
It didn't matter, because the Astros got little else off Lopez, who spotted his fastball consistently and was able to put away Houston hitters with his curve.
He got in a little trouble in the seventh, hitting Lane and walking Jose Vizcaino with two outs. After a brief visit from pitching coach Ray Miller, Lopez blew away pinch hitter Mike Lamb with a high, 91-mph fastball. Lopez hopped off the mound, and the Orioles" 4-1 lead was preserved.
"His ball was moving well." Mazzilli said. "He kept the ball down. He was outstanding."