MINNEAPOLIS -- Rick Sutcliffe has a habit of taking the blame whether it belongs to him or not, so it was no surprise that he was ready to accept responsibility for the Orioles' second sudden-death defeat in a row.
Sutcliffe gave up two hits in the bottom of the ninth inning yesterday, and the Minnesota Twins denied him his shutout and his 150th career victory with another heartbreaking comeback. Kent Hrbek's seeing-eye single off relief stopper Gregg Olson carried them to a 2-1 triumph and sent the Orioles home with just one victory in a three-game series that they were just inches away from sweeping.
"If I put up a zero in the ninth inning, there would be music playing right now and everyone would be laughing and joking around," said Sutcliffe, who was charged with both runs and fell to 10-7 with the loss.
Olson was on the mound for another frightening finish, but he could not blame himself for the two inherited runners who scored drop theOrioles three games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.
He faced two batters and got two soft bouncers on the infield, but one was so soft that the Orioles could not turn a game-ending double play and the other was a slow hopper that '' slipped through the Kent Hrbek shift. The ball went right to the spot where second baseman Mark McLemore would have been playing anyone but Hrbek.
Get out your rulers. The day before, the Orioles would have won a 15-inning marathon if a soft line drive by Chuck Knoblauch had been just two or three inches to the left, but the ball was just out of the reach of McLemore, and the Twins went on to score a 3-2 victory. Yesterday, Knoblauch was just quick enough to beat out the double-play relay on his weak bouncer to second, keeping the Twins alive just long enough for another patented Metrodome moment.
"It was just a matter of a fraction of a second," said Olson, who suffered his second blown save in less than 24 hours. "If Mack is positioned just inches to the right yesterday and Knoblauch gets a bad jump out of the box today, we sweep the series. Fun game, huh?"
The Orioles are more than two games away from the Blue Jays for the first time since April 28, and they can only curse the fates for the ninth inning. They left runners all over the place again yesterday and left the door wide open for another Twins comeback.
The club left 17 runners on in Saturday's loss, 10 of them in extra innings. This time, the Orioles stranded only seven, but were a combined 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position. During the final two games of the series, they were a combined 4-for-32 with runners at second and third.
The clubhouse door was closed a few minutes longer than usual after the game, but manager Johnny Oates said he did not hold any kind of post-game meeting.
"I don't need to say anything," he said. "They know what's going on. The first seven innings, we've got guys on second base. I don't know if they were trying too hard or what. I don't know why we've got a runner at third and we're swinging at the first pitch no matter where it is."
Sutcliffe did his part, scattering eight hits through the first eight innings but keeping the potent Twins lineup at bay whenever the need arose. The Twins left 12 on, but came back at the last moment to reward right-hander Kevin Tapani with his ninth victory for a complete-game performance in which he gave up just an unearned run on six hits.
"Sutcliffe pitched a tremendous game," said Twins manager Tom Kelly. "He had most of our guys mesmerized. We hit a couple of balls decent, but a few of our guys didn't have a chance. He did a super job, and so did our guy."
Sutcliffe got the first batter in the ninth inning, but pinch hitter Randy Bush bounced a ball past first for an infield hit. McLemore ranged far to his left to snag the ball, but Sutcliffe bobbled his one-hop throw at first.
"It was just one of those in-between hops," he said. "Mack made a great play to get to the ball. If I can catch [the throw] cleanly, it's a big play, but it just kicked off the dirt."
Utility player Donnie Hill pinch hit for struggling Greg Gagne and lined a fastball off the tarp in right field for a double. Sutcliffe walked Gene Larkin intentionally to load the bases and turned the ball over to Olson.
"I'm not going to dwell on it," Sutcliffe said, "though as soon as everybody leaves, I'm going to find something to rip apart. This team has done a lot of things to be proud of. We just need to go home and finish the first half well."
The Orioles finished the road half of their season series with the Twins with three victories in six games, which would have been )) satisfactory if they had not won three of the first four. Someone asked Sutcliffe if he thought the Orioles might be back in Minnesota come October.
"There's a team three games ahead of us that's a pretty good team," he said. "If we want to play in the postseason, we've got to keep improving. That includes me."