The Orioles have come home to roast. They came back to Camden Yards with the best record in the major leagues, but they are in serious danger of coming up empty in this three-game series against the Oakland Athletics.
The Bash Brothers have left a couple of bruises. Mark McGwire delivered the big swing in the series opener Monday, and Jose Canseco followed it with a seventh-inning home run that would prove to be the decisive blow in last night's 5-3 Oakland victory.
For the first time in five weeks, the Orioles are struggling. They remain at the top of the American League East standings, but they have lost three straight games for the first time since they were swept by the Toronto Blue Jays at SkyDome in early April.
Once again, they battled back and fell short, this time pulling within a run in the eighth on the first homer of the year by Glenn Davis. But A's stopper Dennis Eckersley closed out the ninth for his league-leading 15th save.
Close is seldom good enough with Eckersley waiting in the wings. He is 15-for-15 in save opportunities this year, and he hasn't given up a run to the Orioles since Aug. 28, 1988. Pinch hitter Chito Martinez delivered a one-out single, bringing the tying run to the plate, but Brady Anderson grounded sharply into a force play and Mark McLemore went down on a check-swing liner to end the game.
The paid crowd of 45,799, the largest at the new stadium, waited nearly four hours for the Orioles to recover from a 3-0 deficit, but the fans' patience would go unrewarded. The club battled back to make it a one-run game in the fifth, but Canseco's eighth home run of the year gave the A's bullpen breathing room.
Orioles stopper Gregg Olson came on to try to keep the game close but surrendered a run-scoring single to Terry Steinbach in the ninth to make Eckersley's job that much easier.
The game was interrupted for 20 minutes in the third inning when a bank of lights went out, creating a dark spot in right field. The cause of the partial blackout was a blown fuse.
Right-hander Jose Mesa did his part, giving up three runs on five hits over 3 2/3 innings before leaving with the bases loaded in the fourth.
Mesa was making his sixth start of the season, but it has been awhile since he has made a lasting impression on the opposition. He pitched well in his first three games, but has averaged 4 1/3 innings (0-2, 6.15 ERA) in his past three.
The A's were right on top of him in the first inning. Rickey Henderson led off the game with a sharp single to left, and Carney Lansford followed with a drive to left that bounced into the stands for a run-scoring ground-rule double. It could have been worse, but Anderson made a diving catch to rob Canseco && of a bloop single and doubled Lansford off second base.
Mesa settled down for a couple of innings, but he could not get the final out of the fourth in time to stay in the game. He got two quick outs after walking the leadoff hitter, but consecutive singles by the bottom three batters in the Oakland lineup brought manager Johnny Oates out of the dugout and Storm Davis out of the bullpen.
"He threw the ball OK," Oates said, "but he had walked a couple of guys and given up a couple of dink hits. I just thought it was time to get him out of there. The starting pitching has spoiled me so much that the last few days, I have left a guy in for one more hitter and one more hitter and we have ended up with a lot of runs on the board."
Though Mesa came into the game with one victory in his first five starts, Oates said before the game that the 25-year-old BTC right-hander had done a decent job in a difficult role.
"Overall, asking him to do a job pitching every eight days, I think he's been great," Oates said. 'What he's doing is a lot like pitching out of the bullpen."
Oakland starter Joe Slusarski was cruising until the fifth, when his control faltered long enough for the Orioles to climb back into the game. He walked Randy Milligan and Joe Orsulak to lead off the inning, and both would score.
Third baseman Leo Gomez moved both runners up with a sacrifice bunt, and Anderson brought home the first Orioles run with a soft ground out to short. McLemore followed with a double down the left-field line to make it a one-run ballgame.
There was room to debate the managerial strategy that put the runners in position to score. Gomez came into the game with an eight-game hitting streak and a .319 average in May, but Oates chose to play for the two-run rally instead of the big inning.
It was hard to argue with the results, especially after McLemore atoned for a costly misplay Monday night with a big two-out hit and his 13th RBI of the season.
Oates continues to get the most out of his two second baseman. McLemore and Ripken have combined to drive in 22 runs in 38 games, making second base the third most productive position in the Orioles lineup. By comparison, Orioles second baseman combined to drive in 34 runs all last year.