CHICAGO -- It would not be polite for the Orioles to say so, but they could not believe their good fortune last night. They were ready to pack up their bats and tip their hats to the Chicago White Sox's 44-year-old knuckleballer, Charlie Hough, but he didn't come out for the ninth inning.
Hough was pitching a four-hit shutout. He was three outs away from his 200th career victory -- three soft outs if the Orioles' performance during his first eight innings was any indication. He had everything going his way until manager Gene Lamont pulled him out of the game.
The Orioles are grateful. They rallied for two runs to tie the game in the ninth and scored another on a 12th-inning single by utilityman Tim Hulett to emerge with a hard-fought, 3-2 victory over the White Sox at Comiskey Park.
The triumph moved the Orioles within three games of first-place Toronto in the American League East after the Blue Jays lost to the California Angels, 5-3.
Hulett hit a one-out line drive off relief pitcher Roberto Hernandez to score Randy Milligan and give left-hander Pat Clements his first Orioles victory. Stopper Gregg Olson retired the White Sox in order in the bottom of the inning for his 23rd save, as the Orioles won their fourth game in a row.
No one in the Orioles clubhouse wanted to second-guess Lamont, but who could deny that they were happy to see reliever Scott Radinsky take the mound in the ninth inning?
"The way we were hitting against him, I don't ever throw the towel in,but there are times that you've got to face the facts," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "We weren't getting
anything. We weren't even getting the meat of the bat on the ball."
Their luck changed in a hurry after the pitching change. Radinsky got Brady Anderson to hit the ball on the infield, but he reached base when shortstop Craig Grebeck bobbled it and threw high to first for an error. The White Sox argued that the play beat Anderson, anyway (and they may have been right), but their luck also had taken a dramatic turn.
Stopper Bobby Thigpen came on to hit Mike Devereaux with a pitch and gave up one-out RBI singles to Glenn Davis and Milligan to tie the game. It was the seventh blown save of the year for Thigpen and the fourth time he has cost Hough a victory.
Lamont defended the move, even though Hough had thrown just 97 pitches and appeared in control.
"I decided over the break that if the game was real close tonight, I would take Charlie out," he said. "They got the one hit off him [in the eighth] and I just didn't want him to throw against Brady, who has had some success off Charlie before."
Then it was unanimous, since the Orioles didn't want him to throw to Anderson, either.
The Orioles did it again. They came back from a two-run deficit in the eighth inning of Sunday night's game in Texas and went on to score a 3-2 victory in the 10th. This time, they exhausted every pitching possibility when Hulett finally broke the tie in the 12th.
Starter Storm Davis came off the disabled list to make his first start in 16 days, so he didn't figure to last very long. He gave up one run over 4 2/3 innings and gave way to a parade of Orioles relievers that didn't end until there was no one available except starter Rick Sutcliffe.
Alan Mills pitched 2 1/3 innings and gave up a run on three hits. Mike Flanagan came on to pitch the eighth, a move that Oates admitted he wouldn't have made if he had known that Hough was going to come out of the game. Todd Frohwirth came back from a strong three-inning performance Sunday night to work 1 1/3 innings and gave way to Clements, who made his third straight scoreless appearance since he was claimed on waivers from the San Diego Padres.
"He was going to pitch until we scored a run," Oates said.
When Olson entered the game for the 12th, Oates had to consider the possibility that his stopper's sore left side might force another pitching move. He said that it would have been Sutcliffe, who was the only starter rested enough to pitch.
Instead, the Orioles got by without him and got back their No. 4 starter, though Davis may need another start or two to get up to speed.
If he was rusty after 15 days on the disabled list, it wasn't apparent in the first two innings. He retired the first six batters he faced and gave every indication that he was fully recovered from the groin strain he suffered in is first start of the year July 4.
The White Sox did not stir until the third, when the bottom third of the batting order reeled off three consecutive singles to take the lead. Grebeck brought home the run with a line drive to right, but the top of the Chicago lineup could do nothing with the first-and-second, no-out situation he left behind.
It has been that kind of season for the White Sox, who have lost seven of their past eight games. They looked as if they had built a strong division contender for 1992 when they added second baseman Steve Sax and designated hitter George Bell to an already potent lineup, but the club has not been a major player in the American League West so far -- not with a sub-.500 record after 91 games.
Despite decent numbers from Bell and first baseman Frank Thomas, the White Sox are averaging barely four runs, not really enough to take advantage of a pitching staff that is among the most effective in the league.
But Hough didn't look as if he was going to need much help on this night. He seemed to be in control, as he attempted to improve on a 7-13 lifetime record against Baltimore. Hough had faced the Orioles in his previous start and given up five runs (four earned) and eight hits over 7 2/3 innings in a 5-3 loss on July 8 at Camden Yards.