Three months ago, 49 wins for the Orioles at the All-Star break would have fallen into the category of impossible dreams.
Three days ago, however, it wasn't even a lofty goal, which is why the Orioles took a bummed-out feeling with them into the midseason recess.
Overall there can be no quarrel with the Orioles' position -- but the route they took to reach it left a disappointing taste.
"Back in March or April, I think we'd have settled for 49 wins," manager Johnny Oates said after yesterday's 9-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins. "But after getting No. 49 three days ago, it doesn't sound very good."
Yesterday afternoon was a long one for the Orioles, who saw starter Bob Milacki (5-7) roughed up for the sixth straight time. The game was a flashback to last year, as the Twins jumped to a 4-0 lead, then withstood an Orioles rally for the second straight game and pulled away.
"We got close to the rim, but we couldn't get out of the hole," said Oates. "Then it got deep again."
Milacki was again tortured by some less-than-robust hits by the Twins, but he also was victimized by the long ball -- a three-run homer by Pedro Munoz in the first inning.
That came after an unorthodox, but logical, piece of strategy in the first inning, when Oates ordered an intentional walk to Kent Hrbek with two out and a runner on third base. "I'd make that move 100 times out of 100 with the matchup I had," said Oates.
"Knowing what he [Hrbek] has done against us and what he's done against Bobby, I don't think there's any question who you'd rather pitch to if you wanted to get out of the inning without a run. He's hitting .391 [9-for-23] with five extra-base hits against Milacki. You have that choice or a guy [Munoz] we've been getting out all year -- plus you've right-hander against right-hander rather than right-hander against left-hander.
"The bottom line is he made a bad pitch on him with two strikes," Oates said.
For the third straight day, the Orioles failed to gain ground on the first-place Toronto Blue Jays, who also lost their third in a row. As a result, the teams head into the All-Star break in the same position they were a week ago, with the Blue Jays (53-34) holding a four-game advantage over the Orioles (49-38).
For Milacki, the three-day rest period is undoubtedly a welcome reprieve, but it came a little too soon. For the fourth time in his past six starts, Milacki failed to make it to the fifth inning.
Over that stretch, he is 0-4 and has allowed 37 hits and 29 earned runs in 22 innings (an 11.86 ERA). Yesterday, Milacki lasted 2 2/3 innings, allowing five hits and as many runs.
He almost certainly has lost his spot in the rotation. Oates said he is "undecided" about Sunday's starter in Texas, the fourth game after the All-Star break. If Arthur Rhodes wasn't going to FTC make that start, he would be preparing to pitch tomor row night -- for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings.
The tone yesterday was set early for the Orioles and Milacki. Twins leadoff hitter Chuck Knoblauch reached for an outside pitch and pulled it for a ground-ball double that barely stayed inside third base. After two ground outs and with Knoblauch on third, Oates decided against challenging Hrbek (5-for-7 in the two previous games) -- and the strategy backfired big time.
Munoz hit his 10th home run of the season deep into the left-field seats. An inning later, Milacki's hole was another run deeper after a double by Randy Bush and a flared single to right by Scott Leius.
Leo Gomez got the Orioles back into the game with his sixth homer in the bottom of the second after bloop singles by Randy Milligan and Joe Orsulak. But the Twins came right back with another run to chase Milacki in the third.
Kirby Puckett, who went 2-for-17 in the series, opened with a walk, went to second on Hrbek's grounder and scored on Brian Harper's looping single to left-center. That signaled Milacki's departure in favor of Todd Frohwirth.
Twins starter Willie Banks, however, couldn't capitalize on his prosperity and came unraveled after the home run by Gomez. In the third, Brady Anderson singled, moved up on a ground out by Mike Devereaux and a wild pitch and scored on Cal Ripken's roller. After Glenn Davis walked, Minnesota manager Tom Kelly had seen enough and summoned Tom Edens to replace Banks.
"He [Banks] just didn't go after hitters following the home run," said Kelly. "He just didn't do it today [yesterday]."
At that point, all things considered, the Orioles weren't in bad shape. But Edens (5-0) and Mark Guthrie shut them down the rest of the way.
The Orioles' only base runner after Orsulak's leadoff single in the fourth was Ripken, who reached on an error in the eighth.
The Twins, meanwhile, chipped away at Frohwirth and Alan Mills for four additional runs, putting the contest out of reach.
"We played good defense, and Edens and Guthrie did a great job," said Kelly. "We're playing as good as we can play, and to win three out of four in Baltimore, in this heat, is fabulous."