Looking back, the game was likely decided in the first inning yesterday afternoon, when Frank Thomas sent Kris Benson's hanging curveball into left field for a two-run single.
But it would take several more innings for the frustration of another series loss and another futile outing against a tough left-hander to surface. After getting thrown out at first base on a weak sixth-inning ground ball, Miguel Tejada, one of numerous Orioles hitters to be reduced to meek swings by Oakland Athletics ace Barry Zito, turned around and angrily spiked his helmet to the dirt.
The helmet was flung with enough velocity that it spun for several moments before first base coach Rick Dempsey retrieved it. The gesture symbolized a lifeless afternoon for the Orioles, who mustered next to nothing off Zito in a 5-1 loss before an announced crowd of 29,407 at Camden Yards in the rubber game of the series.
"Like everybody says, he's a good pitcher," said Tejada, a former teammate of Zito's in Oakland. "He throws the ball where he wants, and we swung at a lot of bad pitches, too."
Zito (10-6) allowed five hits and one earned run through seven innings, easily winning his matchup with Benson, who has lost four straight starts to fall to 9-9. After a rocky first inning, Benson surrendered a bases-empty homer to Milton Bradley in the third and then back-to-back bases-empty homers to Eric Chavez and Thomas in the sixth.
Thomas, whom the Orioles (44-53) considered signing this offseason before they were scared off by his medical reports, was 2-for-4 with three RBIs.
"Sometimes I don't come through for the team myself so as far as getting the team into a roll and stuff like that, it sometimes boils down to the pitching," Benson said. "And today, I didn't get the results that I wanted for them and put them in a hole in the first inning. Against a guy like [Zito], a good left-handed pitcher, you've got to keep the score down to a minimum."
Zito was in trouble on only a few occasions yesterday. Corey Patterson got the Orioles' first hit leading off the third inning, and he moved to second on Nick Markakis' one-out single. But Zito, using his usually steady diet of off-speed stuff and mixing it with his below 90-mph fastball, got Luis Terrero and Melvin Mora on pop-ups.
"He mixed his pitches great, his curveball, his changeup, his slider, his sinker," said designated hitter Kevin Millar, who had two of the Orioles' six hits. "He kept us off-balance enough that we just never could get anything going off him. When he throws all his pitches in any sequence, he makes it tough. He's one of the better ones out there."
Said manager Sam Perlozzo, whose Orioles fell to 9-23 in games facing left-handed starters: "He was pretty tough. I thought he got better as he went on. He changed speeds, got the breaking ball and the good changeup over today. When he threw his 87-mph fastball, it kind of snuck in there on us."
Zito took a three-hit shutout into the seventh inning before the Orioles finally strung together some offense. Millar hit a one-out double that just got past a diving Bradley. He advanced to third on a passed ball and scored when catcher Ramon Hernandez dumped a single into right field to cut Oakland's lead to 5-1.
Patterson then reached on an error by A's first baseman Mark Kotsay, putting men on first and third with one out. However, Chris Gomez, playing in place of Brian Roberts, whom Perlozzo felt needed a day off, bounced into an inning-ending double play. Perlozzo, whose bench was limited with Javy Lopez still hobbled by back problems, said he was saving Roberts if Gomez's spot came up in the ninth inning and the game was still hanging in the balance.
"I thought he really needed a day off," Perlozzo said of Roberts, who is 2-for-22 for his career against Zito. "He hadn't really had much success off Zito in the past. He needed a little rest, so he got it today, and he'll be back in there."
Bruce Chen kept the Orioles' deficit at four runs with three scoreless - and hitless - innings. That was one of the few positives that the Orioles could take into today's day off.
It was little solace to Benson, who pitched a four-hitter in his last outing against the Texas Rangers but lost, 2-1. He didn't think his execution was much different yesterday from last week. The results certainly were.
"They get some timely hits," he said. "I got the ball up in the air on some pitches that caught too much of the plate. ... The two changeups I threw against Texas were hit for ground ball double plays and these were hit for home runs. It's just the way it goes sometimes, but I felt like everything else was fine."