OAKLAND, Calif. -- It should have been a laugher, but the Orioles were just happy to be smiling after yesterday's 7-6 victory over the Oakland Athletics.
Nothing funny ever seems to happen at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, where a five-run lead almost evaporated into the thin afternoon air and it took a milestone save by relief pitcher Gregg Olson to even the three-game series at a game apiece.
Olson bailed out his bullpen mates with two scoreless innings of relief to record his 106th career save and pass Tippy Martinez to assume sole possession of the club record.
He also secured a much-needed victory for spot starter Jose Mesa, who had pitched well and had left in the seventh inning with a seemingly comfortable 7-3 lead.
The comfort zone narrowed considerably after that. Reliever Todd Frohwirth came on to give up a two-out RBI single in the seventh, and Mike Flanagan surrendered a pinch-hit two-run homer to Randy Ready in the eighth that turned it into a one-run game. Olson needed a diving catch by Brady Anderson and a big double play, but he held on to earn his 11th save.
The game came down to Jose Canseco with a runner at first and two out in the bottom of the ninth, but he was caught looking at a classic Olson curveball to end it. Orioles manager Johnny Oates, who doesn't like to put too much stock in any one game, admitted to breathing a major sigh of relief.
"That was the first game where I really had knots in my stomach," Oates said. "I had plans to have dinner with some old friends after the game, but I had already told myself I wasn't eating tonight if I blew this one.
"It could have been one of those games you look back at and it's tough to pick yourself up the next day."
It was an important victory for the Orioles, who had opened a traditionally tough West Coast swing with three losses in four games and were winless in their first four games against the A's this year.
It was also a big victory for Mesa, who came into the game with losses in five of his first six decisions. Nobody said that he was pitching for his place in the starting rotation yesterday, but no one could deny that he needed to come up with a decent performance in a hurry if he wanted to maintain any semblance of job security.
Mesa had to know that, which made his strong performance even more impressive. He held the volatile A's lineup to five hits in 6 2/3 innings, though the game became a lot closer after he turned over a four-run lead to the Orioles bullpen.
It was far from easy. Mesa was on the verge of a major blowup early in the game, and he needed three double plays in the first five innings to stay out of serious trouble, but he settled down to turn in his longest outing since April 26.
"He threw the ball OK," Oates said, "but he has to pick the pace up. He was taking 40 seconds between pitches in the third
inning. I finally told Boz [pitching coach Dick Bosman] to get out there and talk to him. He was putting the whole ballpark to sleep. He picked it up after that and he did pretty well."
He finally got some decent run support. Anderson, Sam Horn and Chito Martinez homered during a middle-inning assault that appeared to break open a tight game.
Martinez delivered the biggest blow, a three-run shot off left-handed reliever Vince Horsman as the Orioles batted around to score four times in the sixth. He drove an 0-2 curveball to right for his second home run of the series.
Anderson also delivered his second home run in two days. He had launched a tremendous shot off A's stopper Dennis Eckersley in the ninth inning Friday night. This time, he sliced a bases-empty homer off A's starter Joe Slusarski in the fifth inning to break a 2-2 tie.
It was Anderson's eighth home run of the season, and it increased his team-leading RBI total to 36. Martinez's home run was his third in five games, and it could be a sign of things to come. Oates said afterward that Martinez would be getting the bulk of the playing time in right field for the foreseeable future.
Horn drove in a couple of runs. He put the Orioles on top in the first inning with an RBI ground out and took Slusarski deep with his third homer of the year to open the four-run sixth.
Mesa had not been the beneficiary of such generous run support since his only other victory, a 10-4 win over the Kansas City Royals on April 21. The Orioles had not scored more than three runs in any of his other six starts.
But this time, they took advantage of a throwing error by rookie outfielder Troy Neel to jump on top with two quick runs in the first inning. Slusarski walked Mike Devereaux with one out and Cal Ripken singled, both runners moving up when Neel's first throw at the major-league level sailed wide of third base.
Neel was making his major-league debut after being called up yesterday after injured right-hander Bob Welch was placed on the disabled list. Manager Tony La Russa moved him right into the starting lineup and didn't have to wait long to regret it.
Horn brought Devereaux home with a grounder to second base and Randy Milligan scored Ripken with a soft single to right-center.
The lead didn't last. Mesa nearly let the game get away when he allowed four straight batters to reach base with none out in the second inning. The A's tied the game on an RBI single by Dann Howitt, but Mesa worked out of trouble with a double-play ball and worked his way into the seventh inning.
The victory kept the Orioles within one game of the first-place Toronto Blue Jays, who rallied to defeat the Chicago White Sox, 2-1, in 11 innings yesterday.