The Orioles needed a win last night, not a cruel tease. They needed a real victory, not the moral kind that bring forced smiles and an empty feeling.
They rallied in the eighth inning, hinting at the end of their six-game losing streak. And they rejoiced at home plate in the 10th when it became official, players bouncing in unison, a manager needing a hug.
Brian Roberts crushed the first pitch from New York Yankees left-hander Mike Stanton for his first career walk-off home run, sending a baseball deep into the left-field seats and the Orioles into delirium after a 5-4 victory that unfolded before a sellout crowd of 47,465 at Camden Yards.
Coupled with the Boston Red Sox's loss, the Orioles (43-34) moved within 1 1/2 games of first place in the American League East. They did it by getting a two-run homer from Rafael Palmeiro in the sixth that reduced New York's lead to 4-3, by tying the game in the eighth on a single by Miguel Tejada off Tom Gordon, and with Roberts destroying an 88-mph fastball that never had a chance.
"On my way to the plate, I had mixed emotions whether I was going to look for something to hit first pitch or take a strike. Sometimes my mind plays too many games with me," said Roberts, who has 13 home runs this season, none more important than this one.
"I was trying to make sure that, if I did swing, that I was going to get a good pitch. A home run was the last thing on my mind. I didn't want to go up there and make a stupid out on the first pitch, but if I got a good pitch, I wanted to do something with it."
Roberts, who is 17-for-34 with four homers against the Yankees this season, said the Orioles had a greater sense of urgency last night. "There was more emotion, more excitement, more energy in our dugout than we've had in the last couple of days," he said.
It all came pouring out at home plate, where the Orioles waited for Roberts, where he knew what to expect. Their smallest player lifted a heavy burden. The least they could do was pummel him.
"I tried to touch and run, but it didn't work at all," he said. "That's something you dream about. You want to be up there in that situation and have that opportunity."
Along with the beatings came plenty of hugs, the longest one from Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli, who latched on and wouldn't let go.
"I think, for him, I'm sure it gets a little emotional anytime he plays the Yankees. That's where his beginnings are," Roberts said. "But as I told everybody else, this win is as big as any other win. You play 162 games. We don't get four wins for this. We just get one."
It felt like five.
Stanton (1-2) snapped his head in frustration, the same kind that had attached itself to the Orioles for a week.
"Somebody swings like that, you hear how solid he hits the ball, you don't even have to look," he said. "I threw it down the middle. I could have hit that one out.
"[Manager] Joe Torre puts me in there and I throw one pitch. That's just disgraceful."
Larry Bigbie hit his second home run in two nights, and Palmeiro produced the 563rd of his career, tying him with Reggie Jackson for ninth place on the all-time list and leaving him 10 hits shy of 3,000. He also passed Frank Robinson for 15th place on the all-time RBI list with 1,813.
"I'm not focusing on me," he said. "I'm just trying to get the team back on track."
The weeklong derailment looked like it would last longer, but Roberts drew a leadoff walk in the eighth and took third when Gordon fielded Bigbie's bunt and threw wide of first base. Tejada singled, clapping his hands as he left the batter's box, and the Orioles had new life.
It sure beat the old one.
"We went through some rocky road the last week," Mazzilli said. "You watch us play tonight and last night, and you wouldn't know it."
Sidney Ponson allowed two home runs, the second a 421-foot blast to center field by Hideki Matsui in the sixth inning that increased the Yankees' lead to 4-1. But he got a crucial double play in the seventh and breezed through the eighth for his longest start in a month, and B.J. Ryan (1-1) retired all six batters he faced.
"I always bring my A game against the Yankees," said Ponson, who rebounded after allowing six runs and 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings in Toronto. "I don't know how to put a finger on it. You always want to beat the best and they always think they're better than us, so I try to prove a point."
The Orioles might have done the same, with Cal Ripken sitting in the front row and staying until the end.
"I wanted to come out and bring them some luck, hopefully break the streak," he said. "I'll be back tomorrow."
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site, time: Camden Yards, 7:05
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Yankees' Mike Mussina (8-5, 3.95) vs. Orioles' Hayden Penn (2-1, 6.07)