TORONTO -- The Baltimore Orioles can take a kind of twisted satisfaction from the first three games of this series at SkyDome. But for a questionable call here and there, they might be on the verge of a four-game sweep and the contending Toronto Blue Jays might be on the brink of disaster.
The Orioles led in the ninth inning of each game. The Blue Jays, not previously known for their late-inning heroics, have come back in dramatic fashion to win the past two.
Third baseman Kelly Gruber lined a three-run homer off reliever Curt Schilling in the ninth to give the Blue Jays a 4-3 victory and keep them close to the division-leading Boston Red Sox.
The importance of this four-game series -- at least to the Orioles -- had diminished mightily by the time they arrived in Canada, but the daily sellout crowds and the three hotly contested games has given it an almost postseason atmosphere. There were subplots all over the place:
*The ninth-inning rally included a questionable baserunning decision by Mookie Wilson and a close call at third base, which added another chapter to the feud between manager Frank Robinson and umpire John Shulock.
*The Blue Jays came into the series with a 1-58 record in games they trailed after eight innings, but their back-to-back, ninth-inning rallies have revived hope for a late-September surge. Gruber was instrumental in both.
*The Orioles had taken the lead on a pair of bases-empty home runs by Cal and Bill Ripken in the fifth inning, the first time brothers have homered in the same inning since Hank and Tommy Aaron did it in 1962.
*Cal Ripken's homer was his 214th as a shortstop, establishing an American League record for career home runs at that position.
*Right-hander Pete Harnisch, who was nearly removed from the starting rotation after a rocky start last week, came back to pitch eight very strong innings, only to be denied his 11th victory of the season.
The Blue Jays tried to run themselves out of their second straight ninth-inning comeback, which led to a dispute that nearly got Orioles third baseman Craig Worthington thrown out of the game.
Wilson led off the ninth with a single to center and nearly was thrown out going to third on a base hit by Tony Fernandez. The Orioles obviously felt he was out at third, judging from the argument that ensued, but the bigger question was this:
What was Wilson doing? The last thing the Jays needed at that point was the lead runner thrown out at third with no one out. The book -- that imaginary volume of baseball common sense -- states clearly that there is no percentage in risking an out at third when the club at bat still has three outs to work with.
Orioles right fielder Jeff McKnight made an outstanding throw, which clearly beat Wilson to the base, but Shulock ruled that the tag was late. Tempers flared and Worthington had to be dragged away from the umpire. Robinson joined the argument moments later, but his post-game complaint did not center on the call.
"I had the worst seat in the house," he said, "but Worthy doesn't argue, so I figured he must feel pretty strongly about the situation. What bothered me was the way he [Shulock] talked to Worthy before I got out there and the way he talked about Worthy after I got out there. I don't think an umpire has the right to talk to a player like he did."
Robinson alleged that Shulock used a particularly offensive term in reference to Worthington, a term that cannot be printed here. Shulock denied that he made an offensive reference to anyone.
"I did not cuss Worthington or Robinson, either one of them," he said. "I don't know where he got that."
But crew chief Don Denkinger gave a less sanitized version of the dispute.
"There was some swearing out there," Denkinger said, "but it wasn't directed at anybody."
The Orioles could have been forgiven for cursing the fates, but the play was too close for any consensus on the accuracy of Shulock's call. Worthington would not comment. Harnisch, who was backing up the play, said he felt the tag was in time. Wilson was evasive.
"It was very close," Wilson said, lapsing into a conspiratorial tone. "Very close. Too close. You don't want to put the umpire in that position, because you're always going to have conflicting opinions."
Several video replays didn't help, though one angle seemed to favor Worthington.
"In other words, the only guy who had a clear angle was me," Shulock said, and that's what I get paid for."
The importance of the play cannot be disputed. Harnisch, who had given up just a run on five hits through the first eight innings, left after the back-to-back singles. Schilling came on to throw three pitches to Gruber, who raised his team-leading RBI total to 104 with his 14th, 15th and 16th RBI in the last seven games.
Perhaps Robinson would have made the pitching change anyway. Perhaps Gruber still would have hit the home run, but he wouldn't have represented the winning run if Wilson had not been at third. Perhaps Harnisch would have evened his record at 11-11.