CHICAGO -- John Oates feels 100 percentage points better than he did a week ago, but under similar circumstances the manager of the Orioles still can't be satisfied.
After a dull 5-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox last Sunday, Oates reflected on his club's highly successful 10-game homestand. "I would rather have been 8-2, but I'll take 7-3 [a .700 pace] anytime," said Oates.
Yesterday the same teams met and the White Sox won a wild 14-10 decision that was remindful of an early spring training game. Afterward Oates dwelled on the road trip, rather than the last game.
"It's the same as last week -- I'd rather have gone 5-0, but I'll take 4-1 [the .800 pace that escaped the Orioles a week ago]," said Oates. "And there was no comparison between this game and the one last week.
"At least we were in this game, chattering and talking, all the way. We had a chance to make a few plays [that might have changed the outcome] and we kept swinging to the end. Last Sunday I don't know where we were."
Indeed, the most improbable thing about the trip is that the Orioles would lose the game in which they produced 17 hits and 10 runs -- both season-highs against the White Sox. In sweeping two games in Texas and winning the first two here, the Orioles allowed only five runs.
The White Sox scored that many in the sixth inning alone yesterday -- barely enough, as it turned out, to take the Orioles out of field goal range.
In a game that produces 24 runs and 31 hits, no one play decides the outcome. But the one that put the White Sox ahead to stay -- Frank Thomas' two-run homer in the sixth -- is a good place to start.
This wasn't your run-of-the-mill home run -- which is usually the case when Thomas and the Orioles are involved. Saturday night he hit one that looked like it might clear the full moon (it went 466 feet, the longest measurement this year).
Last weekend Thomas hit a 10th-inning game-winner off Gregg Olson, after previously connecting off Mike Mussina in the same game. Four of his six home runs this year have come in the six games against the Orioles.
This one, however, looked like just another very long out that should have ended the fifth inning. Instead it produced the closest thing to a four-base error since Pat Kelly patrolled leftfield at Memorial Stadium.
If there's any consolation for Mike Devereaux, it is that the Orioles don't have any more Sunday afternoon games against the White Sox this year. For the second week in a row, the usually reliable centerfielder misplayed a fly ball that proved damaging. A week ago, in Baltimore, he dropped one that set up a two-run first inning as the White Sox beat the Orioles, 5-2.
Yesterday's was even more bizarre. Thomas' drive to deep centerfield bounced not only off the top of Devereaux's glove, but also the top of the fence. Naturally, it came down on the other side for a two-run homer and a 7-6 White Sox lead.
"That ball has to be caught," said Devereaux, who still had a look of disbelief in the clubhouse almost two hours later. "It was just a case of me taking my eyes off the ball too soon."
It appeared as though Devereaux may have misjudged the wall, not the ball, as he leaped and braced himself a step before reaching the barrier. But he said that wasn't the case.
"I might have jumped a step sooner than I had to, but that's not why I didn't catch it," he said. "I could have caught it where I was -- I just took my eyes off of it."
Oates admitted to being somewhat mystified, but not concerned, by it all. "I don't know, maybe we're just so used to seeing him catch everything hit out there," he said.
"For the last three years I don't ever remember him dropping a ball and he's done it twice in a week. I guess it's just one of those things. I know this -- when you put Devo, [Brady] Anderson and [Joe] Orsulak out there, those three are as good at catching the ball as anybody."
For those who wondered why Ben McDonald was even pitching to Thomas in that situation (with a man on third and two outs), it was a classic case of trying to work around a hitter -- and not succeeding. "The idea was not to give him anything to hit, and if he walked just go after [George] Bell," said McDonald.
The strategy dictated four pitches out of the strike zone without making the walk intentional -- with the outside hope that Thomas might get himself out. McDonald only got to throw three.
"I threw him a curveball so bad I couldn't believe he swung at it," said McDonald. "When he did, I felt I was out of the inning -- but the ball ended up over the fence.
"It was a crazy game all around," said the 24-year-old righthander, who had his roughest outing of the year despite the fact he felt he was throwing good.
"I felt good, I had a pretty good fastball, a pretty good curve and threw a lot of changeups," said McDonald. "I could've gotten ahead of the hitters a little more, but I can't complain about my stuff.
"But whenever they hit the ball, it either went in a hole somewhere -- or over the fence. They did a good job."
For McDonald (5-1), the loss broke a personal six-game winning streak dating back to last Aug. 28 and left Mike Mussina (5-0) as the lone remaining undefeated Orioles starter.
For the Orioles, it was just like a bad day at work -- one, perhaps, that was overdue, given the success of the pitching staff through the first 35 games.
"You take it as just one of those games that's going to happen," said pitching coach Dick Bosman. "Hopefully we'll come away from here having learned a few things about ourselves and make some adjustments -- both mental and physical."
Since the Orioles (24-12) were still able to return home in first place, the most serious damage yesterday was delivered to the earned run average department. McDonald's ERA jumped almost a run per game (from 2.44 to 3.40) while the Orioles' team mark rose from 2.88 to 3.17.
That department figures to be thoroughly tested again in the next three days as the Oakland A's make their first visit to Oriole Park at Camden Yards.