TORONTO -- The Baltimore Orioles had hoped to be a major player in the American League East this season, but this was not quite what they had in mind.
They spent the weekend pushing the Toronto Blue Jays bac toward the top of the standings, dropping the final three games of the four-game series at SkyDome before heading home to open a three-game set tonight against the first-place Boston Red Sox.
Last night's 6-5 loss did not feature the kind of late-inning Toronto comeback that made the two previous defeats so hard to swallow, but the Blue Jays won in the bottom of the ninth for the third time in a row when George Bell drove home Tony Fernandez with a one-out line drive to right off Orioles stopper Gregg Olson.
It was Bell's third RBI of the game, but he did not get credit for a hit, because right fielder Steve Finley relayed the ball back to second base for a meaningless force out.
Left-hander Joe Price, the fourth pitcher to take the mound for the Orioles, took the loss, giving up a leadoff single to Fernandez before giving way to Olson.
The loss kept the Orioles entrenched in sixth place and lifted the Blue Jays to within one game of the division lead. It also put Baltimore in position to assist Toronto further over the next three days.
"We're not going out to help Toronto," manager Frank Robinson said. "We're going out to help ourselves. We're going to go against Boston and do the same things we've been doing and hope it turns out better. We'll have the last at- bat."
The home-field advantage is an intangible one. Both teams are entitled to the same number of outs in the course of a game, but the Blue Jays had the heart of their batting order up in the ninth inning in each of the last three and took advantage each time.
Fernandez led off the inning with a single and put the game on notice by stealing second with no outs. Olson came on in relief and got hot-hitting Kelly Gruber to ground to first, but that only moved Fernandez to third. Fred McGriff was walked intentionally to bring up Bell, who fisted a soft liner over second base to bring home the tie-breaking run.
"I always seem to be facing the top of their lineup," Olson said. "It just seems to work out that way. They have a lot of talent. They have a lot of guys who can make things happen."
The highlight of the evening for the Orioles was the debut of diminutive relief pitcher Dan Boone, whose newly developed knuckleball baffled the Blue Jays for 2 1/3 innings -- long enough for the Orioles to close a two-run deficit on David Segui's first major-league home run.
Boone came on in relief of right-hander Dave Johnson, who gave up five runs in 4 2/3 innings and reassumed the major-league lead in home runs allowed with a couple of gopher balls to Kelly Gruber and Bell.
The Blue Jays led by two when Boone entered the game in the fifth. He retired the first six batters he faced before giving up a pair of singles in the seventh. He was the pitcher of record when Segui homered off Toronto stopper Tom Henke to tie the game, 5-5, but gave way to John Mitchell to open the eighth.
If the Orioles had the wind knocked out of them in the previous two games, it did not keep them from making an aggressive statement on the bases in the first inning.
Brady Anderson reached first on a fielder's choice and manufactured a run with a pair of stolen bases, scoring when catcher Pat Borders' throw to third base bounced into left field for an error.
But the Blue Jays came back to tie the game in the first on Gruber's 28th home run of the season.
Gruber has been the hottest hitter in the Toronto lineup, and he has been hammering away at the Orioles all weekend. He delivered an important hit in the Blue Jays' ninth-inning comeback Friday night and hit a three-run homer in the ninth to win Saturday's game.
This time, he was matched against the major-league pitcher most likely to surrender a home run. Johnson entered the game tied with Houston Astros right-hander Mike Scott for the major-league lead in homers allowed (26). Gruber came into the game ranked second in the American League with 104 RBI and in the midst of a seven-game streak in which he drove in 16 runs.
He figured to cool off sooner or later, but not last night. He drove in his 106th run of the year with a sacrifice fly in the third to bring the Blue Jays back from another one-run deficit.
If Bell is back, the Blue Jays could be on their way to the playoffs soon. He has been bothered by blurred vision the past three weeks and came into the game in a 6-for-36 slump, but he saw one pitch perfectly.
Orioles first: Finley walked. Anderson grounded into fielder's choice to first, Finley forced at second, first to shortstop. Anderson stole second. Anderson stole third, and on catcher Myers' throwing error, Anderson scored. C.Ripken struck out. Horn flied out to left. Orioles 1, Blue Jays 0.
Blue Jays first: Wilson flied out to left. Fernandez flied out to left. Gruber homered to left. McGriff walked. G.Bell struck out Orioles 1, Blue Jays 1.