DETROIT -- By the time the Orioles got around to putting the finishing touches on last night's 7-5 win over the Detroit Tigers, Joe Orsulak's first home run of the year was almost ancient history.
The right fielder's three-run poke, which practically scraped the back of the fence on its free-fall to the right-field seats, figured to be the decisive blow of the evening. But since it came in the first inning, it was steak-and-eggs time before the result became official.
So much happened in between, including a couple of quick hooks by manager Johnny Oates, the Orioles were just happy to be within a game of the Toronto Blue Jays for the 42nd straight day.
First, Ben McDonald couldn't make a four-run lead last long enough to qualify for the win. Then, after Alan Mills restored order by retiring all four batters he faced, Mike Flanagan injected enough anxiety to leave Oates squirming on the bench.
The left-hander, who has struggled with his control all year while being used in an unfamiliar spot role (16 innings in 23 games), allowed three base runners while facing four hitters. He was charged with Detroit's last two runs, leaving Flanagan and Oates slightly baffled at the end.
"I'm inches away, but I'm not locked in," said Flanagan, the only left-hander on the staff. "But it's a role I have to get used to."
Without the luxury of a second left-handed reliver, Oates has been forced to use Flanagan much the same way he uses closer Gregg Olson, though not as extensively.
Olson picked up his 17th straight save (18 opportunities overall) last night, but was forced to enter the game a little earlier (with two outs in the eighth inning) than usual. It was the Olson game plan that brought Flanagan into the game in the first place, but it didn't quite go according to Oates' script.
"I knew I was going to use Olson and I decided to get all of the left-handers out of the lineup," explained Oates. "He had Skeeter Barnes hitting .080 and Phil Clark [both pinch-hitters] coming up. I've got to have a good feeling Flanny can get those two out."
But Flanagan hit Barnes ("The third right-hander he's hit with two strikes on him," said Oates), then gave up singles to Clark and Tony Phillips. He left a bases-cluttered mess for Todd Frohwirth after Lou Whitaker's sacrifice bunt put the tying run in scoring position.
"I'm not sure what to think," Oates said about Flanagan, whose problems have mainly been due to isolated control difficulties. "Bos [pitching coach Dick Bosman] and I are going to talk about it tomorrow [today]."
One thing certain to be discussed is the possibility of working Flanagan more before he pitches in a game. "The best he's thrown all year was after he threw to some hitters one afternoon in Texas during early batting practice," said Oates.
The solution revolves around working Flanagan enough to get, and keep, him sharp -- while at the same time keeping him fresh enough for frequent use against left-handed hitters. Since Oates admitted there are no immediate plans to return disabled Jim Poole to the active roster, the solution will rely on a way to acclimate Flanagan to a different role for the second straight year.
He made the adjustment from starter to reliever last year, primarily because the presence of Poole enabled him to pitch longer once he entered a game. "In the beginning of the season, I'd go back to last year and look at it [Poole's absence] as a temporary thing," said Flanagan. "But I realize this is something I've got to adjust to."
Orsulak's homer, following a run-scoring single by Randy Milligan, had given McDonald a head start toward his eighth win, but the big right-hander struggled from the outset. He gave up a home run to Travis Fryman in the first, but made some pitches to escape jams in the second and third before doing a high-wire act once too often in the fifth.
Rob Deer's left-field rooftop shot made it 5-2 (the Orioles added a run on Sam Horn's second double of the night, two walks and a sacrifice fly by Chris Hoiles in the third). Two singles and a walk, with Cecil Fielder coming to the plate representing the lead run, were enough to convince Oates he'd seen enough.
McDonald left one out shy of the necessary five innings needed to get the win. He would have preferred to stay, but didn't question the decision, which Oates said was easy to make.
"You always want to go as long as you can," said McDonald, who was disappointed, but not upset about his removal. "I felt I could get out of that inning and continue to pitch. I wished I could've stayed in, but that's not my decision, it's Johnny's."
Oates indicated his memory played a prominent role in that decision.
"Ben's going to have chances to win a lot of games," said the manager, "but my job is to try and make sure the Orioles get a win. If I leave him in for one more batter and the same thing happens that happened in Baltimore [Fielder was one of three successive Tigers to homer off McDonald earlier this year], what then?
"His stuff was OK, but I thought he struggled all night with his location. We gave him five runs, and I gave him as much time as I could to get the win. I didn't think I could go with him any longer."
Mills (3-1) got Fielder to foul out to end the inning and breezed through the sixth before Oates cranked up the rest of the bullpen to finish it off.
It wasn't as picturesque as he would have liked, but he did get the desired result, which is all that really mattered. Thanks in large part to Orsulak's home run, which came so much earlier that loser Bill Gullickson (7-4) might have been the only other person with a clear recollection of the swing that set up the long chain of events.