TORONTO -- Ever watch the Harlem Globetrotters pound the Washington Generals? The same sense of inevitability pervaded the Orioles' three ninth-inning losses to Toronto last weekend.
Oh, everything was on the up-and-up -- no trick shots, no crazy dribbles -- but last night the Orioles again experienced deja lose, this time playing from behind instead of ahead.
The 6-5 Toronto victory appeared predestined from the start, when Orioles righthander Dave Johnson twice gave back one-run leads. It seemed no less fated at the finish, when George Bell fought a Gregg Olson fastball off his fists for the game-winning RBI.
The Blue Jays outscored the Orioles only 21-20 in the four games, but managed to win three. It was the Orioles' 13th straight series defeat to an AL East club. The last time they won a series within the division was June 8-10 -- at home, against last-place New York.
All this should be of no small comfort to first-place Boston, whose lead over Toronto is down to one game. The sagging Red Sox visit Memorial Stadium for three games starting tonight (7:35, HTS). The surging Blue Jays get the pleasure of hosting New York.
On the surface, the Red Sox appear in deep trouble, but the Orioles are an equal-opportunity opponent. Their offense exasperates manager Frank Robinson even on nights it produces five runs. And Olson, their all-world closer, isn't close to his best.
To recap: Olson earned his 31st save Thursday in the series opener at the SkyDome, but he blew a 7-5 lead Friday, and couldn't preserve a 5-5 tie under difficult, but not impossible, circumstances last night. The problem, pitching coach Al Jackson insists, is not his right elbow.
Said elbow sidelined Olson from Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, but Jackson said his current problem is falling behind in counts. "You've got to get ahead of hitters to be effective," Jackson said. "You can be the healthiest man in the world, and the same thing is going to happen to you."
Robinson doesn't disagree, but he sees a difference in Olson. "If he were sharp, we wouldn't be in here talking about, 'Is he sharp?'" the manager said. "If Olson was the Gregg Olson [of before], we would have had three more wins in this series. No, he's not as effective right now."
Olson conceded, "I don't feel as strong as I did before," but said he is pitching without pain. "If I get out of the inning, I look like a hero, and no one's doubting what's going on, right?" Olson said. Right. Which is why Robinson said he has no plans to shut him down again.
Olson entered the game after Joe Price gave up a leadoff single to Tony Fernandez. The next hitter was Kelly Gruber, who finished the series 8-for-17 with two homers and seven RBIs. After that was Fred McGriff, and then George Bell, who had ended his long home-run drought earlier in the game.
A daunting trio, to be sure, but Olson compounded his task by allowing Fernandez to steal second without so much a look. Gruber earlier hit his 28th homer and a sacrifice fly off Dave Johnson for RBIs 105 and 106. But this time he simply advanced Fernandez by grounding out to first.
Now all the Blue Jays needed was a sacrifice fly. Robinson ordered an intentional walk to McGriff, but he chose to pitch to Bell rather than load the bases for either Kenny Williams or his likely pinch-hitter, John Olerud. The latter had the game-winning hit off Olson Friday night.
Bell, on the other hand, began the night in a 6-for-51 slump that was attributed in part to blurry vision caused by fluid around his right retina. His home run off Johnson in the fourth was his first since Aug. 2, his first extra-base hit since Aug. 9 and his first RBI since Aug. 20. He also had a single off Johnson in the fifth.
Why pitch to him? Robinson said he wanted to give Olson room to maneuver. "I didn't want to load the bases; then he'd have to be so fine with the next hitter," Robinson said. "He'd either make his pitch, or the guy would go to first base. Load the bases, he has no room."
So, the infield remained at double-play depth, while the outfield moved in to thwart the potential sacrifice fly. A reasonable enough plan -- until Olson went 2-0 on Bell. He then came in with a fastball, and Bell punched it to rightfield to score Fernandez (he was not credited with a hit; McGriff was forced at second).
Price (3-4, 3.58) took the loss, but the game slipped away in so many other ways. Johnson allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings. The homers he allowed increased his major-league leading total to 28 -- and remember, he went nearly a month without starting because of a lower back strain.
Offensively, it wasn't much better. Steve Finley went 2-for-4 with his third home run off Toronto starter Frank Wills, but he also bunted into a forceout on an attempted sacrifice for the second straight day. That turned a potential big inning into another one-run disappointment in the third.
The Orioles put two on with two out in the fifth and seventh, but both times failed to score. Rookie David Segui produced the final 5-5 tie with his first career homer in the eighth, a two-run, two-out shot off Blue Jays closer Tom Henke. At that point all things still seemed possible.
Henke (2-2, 2.00) was pitching for the first time in eight games; manager Cito Gaston uses him only when the Jays are leading. That policy drew sharp criticism in Toronto over the weekend -- Henke has worked only five innings in September -- but naturally everything turned out fine last night.
Such is life for the Blue Jays right now, and such is life for the Orioles too. Robinson hates talk of predestiny and fate -- "that's B.S.," he said -- but the game often works in strange and mysterious ways. Two weeks ago the Red Sox led Toronto by 6 1/2 games. Talk about inevitable. Here comes the race.