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Wrestling injury bug, O's taken down, 5-4


ATLANTA - Each day seems to bring another health crisis for the Orioles, and the same statement of respect from their manager. These kids, Lee Mazzilli will say, pointing a finger, don't know that they're hurt.

It's becoming hard not to notice.

The starting pitcher leaves yesterday's game with a sprained toe. The center fielder lies in the dirt after a collision. A key reserve can't pinch hit in a critical bases-loaded situation because of a sore back. And a 5-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field causes almost as much pain.

Andruw Jones led off the ninth with a home run against Todd Williams, sending a towering fly ball to left field that eluded David Newhan's glove by inches and ruined a game-tying, three-run rally by the Orioles in the top half of the inning.

Jones was swarmed at home plate as Mazzilli leaned against the dugout railing, staring at the field, wondering how to keep his team afloat when a tidal wave of injuries keeps crashing into it.

"You can't fault the way they're playing, that's for sure," Mazzilli said. "They give me everything they have out there."

A season-high four-game losing streak has dropped the Orioles (42-32) 1 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East, the most they've trailed by this year. They haven't been this far from the lead since April 14.

The Boston Red Sox have won 11 of their past 12 games to take over first place. The Orioles are 1-5 on a road trip that concludes today against former Cy Young Award winner John Smoltz.

"We were a little short today," Mazzilli said.

On the roster, on the scoreboard and in left field.

Larry Bigbie exited the game in the eighth inning as part of a double-switch with closer B.J. Ryan. Newhan, who's listed at 5 feet 10, replaced Bigbie in left, costing the Orioles 6 inches of height on Jones' fly ball.

"I should have left the 6-foot-4 guy out there," Mazzilli said, trying to inject a little humor.

Said Newhan: "I told Bigbie if he was out there, he probably catches it. Heredity is a [pain]. I'm only so tall."

The Orioles rallied for three runs in the ninth against Braves closer Chris Reitsma to tie the game, a single by Rafael Palmeiro completing the rally. Sammy Sosa walked to load the bases with one out, but pinch hitter Geromino Gil grounded into a double play.

With his bench down to three healthy players before the game, Mazzilli had little choice but to use Gil, a .217 hitter against right-handers this season, in Ryan's spot. Eli Marrero was unavailable because of a sore back, and Melvin Mora hasn't been cleared to play because of a strained hamstring.

"I didn't have any moves," Mazzilli said. "We ran out of options."

Typical of their luck, the Orioles lost starter Bruce Chen to a sprained big toe on his left foot. Chen didn't allow a run in 4 2/3 innings, scattering five hits and striking out three. He walked Marcus Giles with two outs in the fifth and limped to the dugout.

The injury occurred as Chen approached first base after hitting a grounder in the fifth.

Chen tried unsuccessfully to lay down a sacrifice bunt on the first pitch from Roman Colon, then slapped the ball to the left side. Shortstop Rafael Furcal, breaking toward third, was in perfect position to field it and throw out Chen, who stepped on first baseman Julio Franco's foot.

X-rays taken during the game were negative, and Chen, who couldn't push off the rubber after the injury, will attempt to make his next start.

"It felt really bad when I did it," he said. "It was frustrating, but we iced it, and I got some treatment and some medication, and it feels much better. Right now, I'm optimistic."

Chen's replacement, rookie Chris Ray, struck out three of the four batters he faced. But the Braves scored four times in the seventh, all of the runs charged to Jorge Julio, who allowed three hits, walked two and threw two wild pitches, both on sliders in the dirt.

"I felt fine," he said. "It was only my slider that I had lack of command."

Williams pitched the ninth because Mazzilli removed Ryan for a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and two outs. Jones fell behind 1-2 before turning a sinker over the plate into his 23rd home run.

"When he first hit it I thought it was gone. I didn't even look back at first," Williams said. "But then I thought Newhan had a chance."

A clubhouse attendant helped remove Luis Matos' spikes after the game. Matos had ice wrapped on his left wrist after colliding with Franco at first base in the ninth inning.

Matos, who stayed in the game, reached on an infield hit, and third baseman Wilson Betemit's throwing error allowed a run to score. Palmeiro tied the game, Jones won it for the Braves, and the Orioles were hurting in so many ways.

Orioles today

Opponent: Atlanta Braves

Site, time: Turner Field, Atlanta, 1:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (7-2, 4.37) vs. Braves' John Smoltz (7-5, 2.88)

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