TORONTO -- This may be a season of firsts for the Orioles, but the precedent for yesterday's heartbreaking 4-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays was set long ago. It was the first deflating defeat of the new season, but this kind of thing has become old news at SkyDome.
Relief stopper Gregg Olson came on with a one-run lead in the ninth inning to give up a game-tying homer to Pat Borders and a game-winning single to Roberto Alomar, letting the Blue Jays get away with a victory in their home opener.
If this is beginning to sound familiar, it should. The Blue Jays have been doing this to the Orioles on a fairly regular basis for several years now. In fact, the Blue Jays have pulled out a victory in their last at-bat seven times in the past 17 games between the two clubs in Toronto, dating back to that fateful final weekend of the 1989 season.
Olson was around then, when the Blue Jays clinched the division title, and he has been on the mound for more than a few of the frightening finishes since. This one didn't compare to the Friday night fiasco of 1989, when Olson threw a game-tying wild pitch in the biggest game of the year, but it definitely was not the way he wanted to spend his first save opportunity of the year.
"I've had a couple of these here," he said. "They have a tough lineup and it always seems like they are coming around to the top of the order when I come in. That makes it tough when they've got guys like they've got hitting."
The Orioles had clung to a precarious lead all game, hoping to send the largest regular-season crowd in Blue Jays history (50,424) home disappointed. The Orioles' struggling lineup scored three times in the first inning -- more runs than it had scored in in any of the first three games -- but that was it for the
Right-hander Mike Mussina pitched resourcefully, but he struggled in the middle innings and gave way to setup men Todd Frohwirth and Mike Flanagan. Both did their jobs, but the lead had been cut to one when Olson took over in the ninth.
This is becoming a familiar story in itself. Olson used to come in and make short work of the final inning, but it hasn't been so easy the past year or so. He went to a 3-and-0 count to leadoff hitter Candy Maldonado before striking him out. Then he threw a fastball that Borders drove into the second deck above left field.
Olson got shortstop Manny Lee for the second out with a grounder to second, but gave up an opposite-field double to Devon White.
Enter Alomar, who fought off a high curveball and dropped it into center field to complete the comeback and keep the Blue Jays undefeated in 1992.
Olson second-guessed himself for the pitch to Borders. It seemed like everyone else was second-guessing manager John Oates for allowing him to pitch to Alomar with first base open, though perennial 100-RBI man Joe Carter was on deck.
"I can't believe that they pitched to him," Carter said. "I can't believe they pitched to the switch-hitter in that situation."
Alomar is an outstanding contact hitter, and Carter had just returned to the lineup after missing Thursday's game in Detroit with a sore back. But Oates had plenty of data to back up his decision to go after Alomar.
"Because the guy behind him has had about 350 RBI the past three years," Oates said. "Because the guy at the plate was hitting .188. Because the guy at the plate had not had any success against Olson. Because the guy behind him was 3-for-5 against him. Because if I walk him, then I leave Gregg without any room to play around with."
Alomar hit a soft liner that Olson made a stab at before it settled into center field and settled the issue.
Later, Olson did not defend his performance, but he did defend Oates' decision to pitch to Alomar.
"I've gotten Alomar out," he said. "I haven't faced him that much, but I've gotten him out. I can't say that about Carter."
He has spent the past year trying to explain why he isn't the same pitcher who consistently overpowered hitters in 1989 and '90.
"He's just not blowing people away anymore," Oates said. "I don't expect him to blow people away all the time, but there's no such thing as a 1-2-3 inning anymore. We'll just continue working. We have to have him right to go anywhere."
It was one of those games in which everything went right until one thing went wrong. Mussina pitched well enough to earn his first victory. Frohwirth looked like the same pitcher who took the American League by surprise last year. Flanagan got an important one-pitch out in the eighth inning.
Toronto left-hander Jimmy Key looked beatable in the first inning, giving up three hits to open the game. Brady Anderson and Joe Orsulak doubled to put the Orioles on the scoreboard, and Cal Ripken followed with an RBI single. Randy Milligan cleared the bases with a double-play ball, but Mike Devereaux made it a three-run inning with his second home run in as many games.
Key was in trouble, but he gave up just three hits over the next six innings.
Reliever Pat Hentgen spelled Key with two innings of one-hit relief and earned his first major-league victory.