For nine days in May, the Orioles maintained a near-perfect union of offense, defense and pitching.
On the 10th day, they were a perfect mess.
This was Mother's Day, 1992, and the Orioles' ghastly 5-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox yesterday was a game only a mother could love. Jack McDowell's mother, maybe, but not any mother with orange-and-black connections.
Certainly few in another Camden Yards sellout of 44,609 could have imagined the horror show that unfolded as the Orioles concluded a 10-game homestand.
How ugly was it? Let's count the ways:
* Centerfielder Mike Devereaux dropped a wind-altered fly ball in the first inning, helping spot the White Sox two early runs.
* With Joey Cora stealing third, Orioles third baseman Tim Hulett misplayed a throw from catcher Chris Hoiles into Chicago's third run. It happened, of course, in the third inning.
* Orioles first baseman Randy Milligan muffed a hump-back liner by Matt Merullo in the sixth, and Merullo came around to score Chicago's final run.
That three-error trilogy helped produce two unearned runs. But it was only half the story of the Orioles' defensive demise. In the second inning, second baseman Mark McLemore missed the tag on Chicago's Vance Johnson in mid-rundown after Johnson had been cleanly picked off first by Jose Mesa. When Milligan botched the sixth-inning liner, he recovered in time to get Merullo anyway, but relief pitcher Mike Flanagan failed to cover first.
If there was any doubt this was not to be the Orioles' day, though, it disappeared in the fifth. That's when shortstop Cal Ripken turned an inning-ending double play -- and started to return to his position. When the franchise player has a mental lapse, can there be any saving the Orioles?
"Little things led me to believe we were not really into it," manager John Oates said after the Orioles lost a home series for the first time in their new ballpark.
"Little things . . . one time we turned a double play with one out and half the team went back [to the field]. We just weren't clicking."
Those little things added up to an eviction from the AL East lead for the Orioles. Toronto beat California, 4-1, last night to take over the top spot.
Defense was not the Orioles' only deficiency yesterday, though. The goateed McDowell became the major leagues' first seven-game winner when he mastered the majors' highest-scoring team.
The unbeaten righthander retired 15 of the first 16 batters he faced, and no Oriole got as far as second base until the eighth. In his last four games and 32 innings, McDowell has given up just 16 hits.
"He used to be a fastball, curveball pitcher, now he's a fastball, forkball pitcher," said Orioles leftfielder Brady Anderson, whose streak of reaching base in 28 consecutive games ended.
"He threw the forkball in fastball counts. And you've got to be ready for his 90 mile-an-hour fastball."
Said Oates, "We really didn't get too many good swings off him."
It didn't hurt McDowell's pitching line that when the Orioles did hit the ball hard against him, it was usually into the face of a stiff wind blowing in from center. Anderson had three drives knocked down by the wind, and Milligan and Hulett also suffered the same fate. All told, White Sox centerfielder Johnson had eight putouts.
Only Hoiles, with two hits, and Hulett, with a two-run single, had any meaningful success against McDowell.
"He's not 7-and-0 for nothing," Hoiles said. "He pitched a great ballgame.
"I can't say we're out of sync because we've been playing good defense. Devo, you're not going to see that [a dropped ball] very often in the outfield. We're only human. We're going to make mistakes. It was a high sky and a tough wind. It [almost] happened to Joe Orsulak, but he was able to catch the ball. I'm just glad I was behind the plate."
Finally, there was the Orioles' pitching. Mesa, who has a 3-11 record for his last 21 starts dating to last May 16, suffered from non-support and his own wildness.
In 4 1/3 innings, Mesa walked four batters and hit another. He walked the light-hitting Cora twice and hit him with a pitch. Cora, hitting .071, scored each time.
"I just don't think he was sharp from the first pitch," Oates said of Mesa. "We could have gotten away with one run [by the White Sox] in the first inning if we don't drop a fly ball, and maybe no runs if we don't walk Joey Cora."
After a day off today, the Orioles open a five-game road trip tomorrow in Texas. But Oates really couldn't complain about a 7-3 homestand that saw them nose out Toronto for the division lead on two occasions.
"I'm disappointed we lost two of the last three," he said, "but it was a decent homestand. I'd rather win eight than seven, but I'll take seven out of 10."