NEW YORK -- It was just a few days ago that the Orioles were on a roll. They had won eight of their last 10 and 11 of 16.
They were headed for the All-Star break with the kind of momentum that might lead to the strong second half they so much wanted.
But the wheels have come off so suddenly that it looks like somebody's been tinkering with the machinery. Yesterday they lost 3-2 to the red-hot Yankees (six straight) to once again fall 15 games below .500 (31-46).
It was the Orioles' fourth straight loss to the Yankees, who swept a three-game series in Baltimore May 24-26. Two days ago the Orioles were only four games behind the Yankees and fourth place didn't look that far away.
Now they are faced with the prospect of having to sweep the last three games of this series just to recapture lost ground. While the Yankees (37-38) continue to do everything right, the Orioles are in a rut.
"You can't explain it," manager John Oates said when asked about the Yankees' surge. "Nobody in the history of the game has been able to explain it -- or figure out what happened when things go the other way."
Yesterday it was pretty simple -- the Yankees outhomered the Orioles two (Mel Hall and Steve Sax) to one (Chris Hoiles). And when Sax failed to execute a sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning, rookie Pat Kelly, who led off with a double, made up for it by stealing third base.
Roy Smith was the victim of all the damage -- except for Kelly's steal and the game-winning hit by Roberto Kelly. The righthander took the loss, on a day he deserved better and Oates was questioned for letting him start the eighth inning.
In an era that is rapidly creating the monster known as the six-inning wonder, Oates dared to stay with his starter beyond the accustomed limit. "Why not?" asked Oates. "He had great command of his curveball, he was throwing as good in the seventh inning as he was in the first and I knew what I had going out there [as opposed to what he might hope for with a reliever]."
One batter later and Smith was out of the game. "He made a good pitch, the guy [Kelly] just went out and 'pinged' it," said Oates. "I had no thought of not sending him back out there."
Smith, who grew up playing ball in the shadows of Yankee Stadium and has never won a game there, understood the thinking of his manager. "He was giving me a chance to win the game," said Smith. "That's all you can ask. I wasn't threatened out there by [Pat] Kelly."
As it turned out, however, Smith was beaten by a pair of Kellys, one of whom he wasn't around to face. After Sax popped up trying to execute a sacrifice, Kelly took off for third base on reliever Todd Frohwirth's next pitch.
It wasn't a contest, especially after Hoiles, who threw out two other would-be base-stealers, dropped the pitch. "Chris saw him edging off the base and was going to call timeout," said Oates.
A timeout was the only thing that could've helped Hoiles, who had no chance to throw out Pat Kelly. Then, with the infield in, Roberto Kelly hit a sharp two-hopper just out of the reach of a diving Bill Ripken at second base.
"The other day with a runner on first I was looking for a double play and got a dribbler and the run scored," said Frohwirth. "This time I was looking for a dribbler and got a hard two-hopper. The pitches are the same, it's just the way they react to them."
But the way Oates was talking, this was a game that shouldn't have been decided by a stolen base, the infield in and a two-hopper up the middle. "I never saw a guy [Yankees starter Jeff Johnson] pitch behind as much as he did," said Oates. "It seemed like he was 2-and-0 all day, but we didn't hit many balls hard.
"I don't know how he did it -- maybe a little sinker on 2-and-0 is the way to pitch -- but the bottom line is, how did he make out? He was effective, and that's all that matters."
After getting two of three yesterday, Hoiles has thrown out 48 percent (15 of 31) of the runners who have tried to steal against him. That's the best percentage in the American League.
"He's playing very well, especially behind the plate," said Oates. "He'll be in there a lot the rest of the way."
The irony of Hoiles' season thus far is that it was expected he might struggle behind the plate, but hit for a decent average and pop a few home runs. His average, though on the upswing, is still in the low .200s, and his home run yesterday was only his fourth of the year.
Yesterday was only the third time that the Orioles have lost in the eight starts made by Smith (4-2). David Segui was the only Oriole with two hits yesterday. Roberto Kelly and Kevin Maas connected twice for the Yankees. Sax homered for the second straight game, only the second time he's ever done that in his career.
The Orioles are 18-22 in their first 40 games under Oates. Half of the losses (and four of the wins) have been by one run.