What started as a promising series for the Baltimore Orioles turned into a standoff last night and slowed their climb back to respectability in the American League East.
After dropping the first two games with back-line starters working, the Toronto Blue Jays won the last two, salvaging a series split last night with a 3-2 victory behind Todd Stottlemyre, Duane Ward and Tom Henke.
The Orioles simply ran into strong pitching this time, getting just five hits to lose for the fifth time in seven games and fall 9 1/2 games off the lead again.
There was little blame to be found. Jeff Ballard was good, but not good enough to avoid his 10th straight loss as a starter at Memorial Stadium. The defense contributed two excellent plays, by David Segui in left field and by Joe Orsulak in right.
"We were in a perfect situation to win three of four and gain, but we can't get over the hump," said Ballard. "We're playing real good baseball, so it's frustrating in that sense. We've only been out of one game since John [Oates] took over. What we have to do is win a higher percentage of these close ones."
Toronto thus left town with the same 1 1/2 -game edge on the second-place Boston Red Sox, and the Orioles remained in the position of trying to overcome the second-poorest start in franchise history.
Six of the previous nine Orioles-Blue Jays games had been decided in the eighth inning or later, but this one was an exception.
This was a middle-inning decision as Ballard flinched just enough to give Stottlemyre the necessary cushion to win for the first time in his past five starts.
The Orioles managed a last-ditch threat in the ninth against Ward that started with a single by Sam Horn. Juan Bell ran for Horn, and, two outs later, Randy Milligan, jammed thumb and all, singled through the middle on a 1-2 pitch to score Bell, who had gained second on a wild pitch.
A walk to pinch hitter Ernie Whitt in his first appearance against his former team finished Ward and brought on Henke to face pinch hitter Dwight Evans, 0-for-8 lifetime against Henke. Evans popped out to right field.
"We had a pretty good guy against a pretty good guy," said Oates. And this time we didn't get up on top."
Ballard, who has been victimized by 13 unearned runs, received a 1-0 lead when Leo Gomez hit his first major-league homer, off Stottlemyre in the second inning.
Oates said Ballard then "pitched his normal game, held the opposition to three runs. He kept us in it. But you've got to win a few of those once in a while."
The Blue Jays tied it on Devon White's homer in the fourth, went ahead on singles by Mark White and Manuel Lee around a wild pitch in the fifth, and got an insurance run in the sixth on a walk to White, Roberto Alomar's single to extend his batting streak to 15 games and Joe Carter's single.
Segui made a tough catch to defuse one rally in the fifth, then faked Alomar rounding second to throw him out in the sixth.
But the Orioles couldn't buy a clutch hit. They had the leadoff man on six times and the second hitter on once and couldn't apply a knockout punch to Stottlemyre, who is 3-0 with a 1.37 ERA against them in his career.
Ballard wound up with his sixth loss in his last 10 appearances and is 0-5 at home this season.
"It's depressing, that's all," he said. "You hate getting losses. I haven't won many games [three] with my typical game this year.
"But you have to keep fighting off the negative feelings and dwell on the positive things. I'm throwing the ball well. My record could be 7-3 instead of 3-7."
Before Milligan singled home the second run, in the ninth, the Orioles were 0-for-16 with men on base. Stottlemyre, with an excellent fastball, had a lot to do with it.
"He's very capable," said Ballard. "I don't remember him every throwing a bad game against us. But you can't go out thinking that he's pitching well, so you have to be afraid of giving up runs.
"Usually, when you do that you start throwing up four and five-run innings."
Oates said he didn't try much maneuvering despite the leadoff hitters reaching because he either had poor speed on the bases or hitters were up with little bat control.
"It was just one of those nights when the gamble would go against you," he said.
Orioles-Blue Jays scoring
Orioles second: Gomez homered to left on 1-1 count. Segui grounded out to pitcher Stottlemyre. Milligan flied out to right fielder Whiten. Melvin grounded out to second baseman Alomar. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Orioles 1, Blue Jays 0 .
Blue Jays fourth: White homered to left on 2-0 count. Alomar struck out. Carter singled to right center. Tabler flied out to center fielder Devereaux. Carter caught stealing, catcher Melvin to second baseman B. Ripken. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 0 left on. Blue Jays 1, Orioles 1.