Momentum shift

The Baltimore Sun

Sometimes, you just have to marvel at the strange psychological dynamics at work in a major league ballgame.

The Orioles arrived back at Camden Yards yesterday in a serious funk, their five-game losing streak dropping them into the American League East cellar and their inability to put runs on the scoreboard becoming a bigger issue with every passing day.

Which is why it would be tempting to look at yesterday's 6-1 victory over the New York Yankees and assume the Orioles simply snapped out of their hitting slump with the five-run seventh inning that broke the game open.

If you gave in to that temptation, you were about four innings late, because everyone in the Orioles clubhouse agreed that the turning point for the struggling O's offense actually took place while the Yankees were at the plate in the third.

Nick Markakis, who was fast becoming the poster boy for the club's offensive struggles, scooped up a single by Hideki Matsui and threw out Johnny Damon at home plate to squelch a Yankees rally and rescue young Garrett Olson.

It was more than just a big out. It was more, even, than the outfield assist that gave Markakis the major league lead in that statistical category. It was a momentum-shifting play that simultaneously gave the team a huge lift and let Markakis vent some of the frustration that had been building during a month in which he was batting .200 and striking out at an alarming rate (22 in his previous 81 at-bats).

If that wasn't enough, it also emboldened Olson, who collected himself and held the Yankees hitless for the next four innings on the way to his fourth victory in five decisions.

"If they score first and put a whole lot of numbers on the board, you're probably going to be saying to yourself, 'Here you go again,' " manager Dave Trembley said, "but he throws the guy out and it gives us a lot of life."

The psychic connection to the team's offensive turnaround later in the game might be hard to document from a clinical perspective, but it seemed obvious that Markakis was a different hitter and the Orioles were a different team after that play.

Markakis came up in the bottom of the third and sliced a double to the opposite field. He later put the first run on the board with a long home run to center field and added another run-scoring hit to punctuate a breakout performance at the plate that obviously was not a coincidence.

There are days when baseball is a mind game you play with yourself.

"When he threw the guy out, that picked the whole team up," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "Then he goes the other way with that double and he hits the home run and you say to yourself, 'OK, it seems like the rough days might be behind us.'"

The Orioles can only hope. They reached the emotional high-water mark of the early season last Tuesday with a 12-2 victory at Yankee Stadium, but scored just one run over the next three days and tumbled down the standings with their second five-game losing streak of the year.

Meanwhile, the Yankees had assembled a five-game winning streak to calm some panic in the Bronx.

With undefeated Yankees starter Darrell Rasner coming off seven scoreless innings against the O's on Wednesday night and Olson still stinging from his rocky performance in that same game (2 2/3 innings, six earned runs), the odds seemed good that neither team would change direction yesterday afternoon.

It still looked that way after the Orioles went through the batting order the first time, but Markakis changed the look and feel of the game when he threw that roadblock in front of the Yankees in the third.

"It's big in a pitchers' duel," said Aubrey Huff, who broke the game open with a three-run homer off reliever Jose Veras in the seventh. "Olson threw a great game today, and Rasner was putting that cutter anyplace he wanted, so a play like that was obviously huge at the time. We knew Rasner, with the way he threw the first five innings, was going to be tough, so we needed to go out there and get to the bullpen, which was fortunate, too."

The victory allowed the Orioles to climb off the floor in the AL East and deposit the Yankees back into the cellar. There's no great significance to that in late May, but it beat the alternative.

"We needed to start off on a good note at home," Huff added. "We definitely didn't play well on the road at all. To come here in the first game of the series, this was big."

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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