BOSTON -- The situation could not have been more different the first time Toronto visited Memorial Stadium. July was giving way to August, and the Orioles were the hottest team in the majors. Then they lost two of three to the Blue Jays, and things were never quite the same.
The Orioles' collapse, triggered by a series of devastating injuries, actually began one week later. But at the start of Toronto series the players were flush with optimism, four games out. Little did they know that was the closest they would come to serious contention.
Bob Milacki lasted only 2 1/3 innings in the opener, then went on the disabled list; his next start wasn't until yesterday. Ben McDonald won the middle game, but Mickey Weston was hammered in the finale. He would make only one other start.
Now, of course, everything has changed. Toronto trails Boston by one game with three to play, and the Orioles are in fourth place, 11 1/2 games back. Jose Mesa and Dave Johnson will pitch the first two games of this series. McDonald is scheduled for the finale.
A game-by-game preview:
Mesa (2-2, 3.92) vs. David Wells (11-5, 3.05)
Mesa, 24, has emerged as a strong contender for the Orioles' starting rotation in 1991, and manager Frank Robinson reworked his pitching schedule so that he would start against his former team on two extra days rest.
It's possible the layoff will affect Mesa's control, but he has been utterly convincing thus far, working into the sixth inning in each of his six starts. He beat Boston and Toronto in back-to-back starts last month, allowing just three earned runs in 13 2/3 innings.
Wells, a lefthander, is 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA in his last five starts -- including a no-decision against the Orioles Sept. 15 in which he allowed three runs in 8 2/3 innings at the SkyDome. The Blue Jays won 4-3 on Kelly Gruber's three-run homer off Curt Schilling in the ninth.
Johnson (13-8, 4.20) vs. Bud Black (12-11, 3.67)
The most memorable start of Johnson's career took place at this exact juncture last season, in the second-to-last game. Johnson, the last-minute replacement for Pete Harnisch, took a two-hitter and 3-1 lead into the eighth. But, the Blue Jays rallied to clinch the division title.
The game helped earn Johnson a spot in the Orioles' rotation this season, and to everyone's surprise he is the club's leading winner. His only start against the Blue Jays on Sept. 16 was a clinker (IP 4 2/3 , ER 5), but he's 2-1 with a 3.16 ERA in four starts since coming off the DL.
Black, another lefthander, has made two appearances since arriving from Cleveland, losing his only start. He did not earn a decision in his only start against the Orioles for the Indians (IP 6 2/3 , ER 3), but shut them out at Memorial Stadium last Sept. 6 in the heat of the pennant race.
McDonald (8-5, 2.45) vs. Dave Stieb (18-6, 2.95)
If it still means something, this one could be a classic. McDonald has made no secret of his desire to beat Toronto, and he already is showing a knack of rising to the occasion against top pitchers, as evidenced by his stirring victory of Jack Morris on Sept. 12.
McDonald has pitched nine innings in three of his last four startsand his opponents are batting .199, second lowest to Nolan Ryan among AL starters. His only obstacle has been Boston; he's 0-2 with an 11.05 ERA against the Red Sox, 8-3 with a 1.84 ERA against the rest of the league.
Stieb was at his mercurial best in his first appearance aMemorial Stadium this season, walking three of his first four hitters and allowing four runs in the first inning before settling down to earn his first career win in Baltimore. He's 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA in his last six starts.
* NUMERO BRUNO: Question of the day: How would Bostorightfielder Tom Brunansky look in an Orioles uniform? Brunansky is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and he surely helped his market value by hitting five homers in the series.
Orioles president Larry Lucchino has said the club will explore aloptions this winter, but Brunansky's price will be steep. His talks with the Red Sox reportedly broke down after the team offered him a three-year, $6 million contract.
Brunansky, 30, began the season as one of four active playerwho had hit 20 homers eight straight years, but he had just 10 entering the Toronto series. The Red Sox acquired him for reliever Lee Smith on May 4, and it's no secret they expected more.
It's possible now their perspective will change. Brunansky is .328 lifetime hitter at Fenway, with 23 homers and 70 RBIs in 351 at-bats. "He can carry a team on his shoulders," said reliever Jeff Reardon, a teammate in both Boston and Minnesota. "He's capable of that."
* THE STONE AGE (AT LAST): Jeff Stone received a standing ovation from the Fenway Faithful upon entering yesterday's game as a pinch-hitter. Stone struck out, but his game-winning hit Friday night will linger as the crowning moment of a disappointing career.