ARLINGTON, Texas -- Make no mistake about it, the Orioles sent a message to the American League East over the weekend, and they punctuated it with an exclamation point here last night.
While the first-place Toronto Blue Jays were beating up on the Seattle Mariners and the third-place Milwaukee Brewers were hammering the Chicago White Sox, the team in the middle also was taking care of business. The Orioles needed a break, and a couple of strong individual performances to beat the Texas Rangers, 3-2, in 10 innings last night, and they got both.
"Any time you come back late in the game, it gives you a little extra oomph," said manager Johnny Oates, who normally refuses to recognize the importance of an individual game, especially at this point in the season. So, how would he describe the Orioles' latest victory?
"I think Junior [Cal Ripken Jr.] said it best when we were coming up the tunnel to the clubhouse," said Oates. "He said, 'That was a good one.' I think 'good' is the best word."
OK, so it wasn't big . . . or significant . . . or any more satisfying than the one the night before . . . or the night before that. But, put the three of them together and they send a message that says to the Blue Jays, and the Brewers: "It's not going to be easy; we're not going to go away."
Oates stopped short of endorsing that interpretation, but not by much. "I don't know if it sends a message to other teams," he said, "but I hope it sends one to the team out there [in the Orioles' clubhouse].
"I don't think it [winning three of four from the Rangers] means anything to those other teams. But I think it means something to our team."
Last night's game became something special for several reasons. Arthur Rhodes had at least three chances to lose his composure. Because he didn't, he didn't lose the game, pitching six strong innings in a second straight impressive start.
"I just told myself to get my arm up, throw strikes and we're going to win the game," said the 22-year-old left-hander, who took a no-hitter into the sixth. "After the third inning [when Dean Palmer led off by drawing Rhodes' fifth and final walk of the game] I was able to do that. I had a nice time out there."
Even after he committed a balk that produced the Rangers' first run in the last 26 innings, Rhodes didn't cave in. "A year ago, I don't know, he might have been throwing the ball against the backstop," said Oates. "Now, he just seems to have so much more composure."
When Rhodes left after giving up two runs in the sixth inning, right-hander Todd Frohwirth shut the Rangers down until the 10th. Then it was left-hander Pat Clements, who got Rafael Palmeiro to hit into a double play, and Gregg Olson, who struck out Ruben Sierra for his 22nd save, who put the clamps on the victory.
The knee-buckling curveball from Olson that ended the game was of particular significance to the Orioles. It was the first appearance in 11 days for the relief ace, who had been sidelined with a strained muscle in his left side. In that time the Orioles did not lose a game in which Olson might have been a factor, a bonus that does not show up in the standings.
The Orioles concluded the series in Texas by allowing the Rangers only six hits in the last 30 innings. Yet, for all their marvelous pitching, they would have left with only a split of the four games had it not been for four critical at-bats in the eighth inning.
Easily the most overlooked was the first -- by pinch hitter Chito Martinez. It took four foul balls for him to work Texas starter Todd Burns for the walk that set up the two runs that tied the game.
"That was a great at-bat," said Burns, who left after issuing the leadoff walk on a 3-and-2 pitch. "He fouled off all four pitches I had."
A one-out single by Brady Anderson brought on Jeff Russell, the Rangers' closer, who promptly struck out Mike Devereaux. At that point Ripken, fighting a 4-for-52 slump, muscled a hit over the infield to drive in the first run and send the potential tying run to third.
Glenn Davis followed with a hard two-hopper that handcuffed Palmer, who couldn't make the play and was charged with a crucial error that allowed the tying run to score. The third baseman was so infuriated for not making the play that he pounded the roof of the Rangers' dugout with his fist between innings, stopping only when teammates pulled him away from the immovable object of his frustration.
That proved to be the break the Orioles needed. They pushed across the game-winning run in the 10th, when Anderson again ignited a rally, this time with a crisp single to right off Terry Mathews, who had replaced Russell.
Devereaux followed with another single to the same sector and Ripken then tomahawked a pitch that was eye-level for a sacrifice fly.
Even then, there was one more significant play before the Orioles could finish their message. Frohwirth walked Palmer on four pitches to start the 10th and Clements came in to face Palmeiro.