It must have felt like forever.
Orioles right-hander Rick Sutcliffe had not won a game in five weeks, but he held the Detroit Tigers to six hits over 7 2/3 innings last night to score a 6-3 victory at Camden Yards and lift the Orioles one game closer to the top of the American League East standings.
Sutcliffe evened his record at 11-11 with his 150th career victory. The Orioles narrowed their divisional deficit to 2 1/2 games with their fifth straight victory and some help from the Boston Red Sox, who trounced the first-place Toronto Blue Jays, 9-4, at Fenway Park.
The milestone victory was long in coming. Sutcliffe had made six unsuccessful starts since recording his previous victory on June 30, so he seemed more excited about the pennant race than the personal plateau.
"These games are a lot more important than me being the 700th pitcher in major-league history to win 150 games," he said. "It has been frustrating. The team is playing well, and you want to be part of it."
The Tigers have played the perfect guests, slipping to the brink of a three-game sweep with their eighth loss in 10 games against the Orioles this year. Right-hander Mike Mussina will try to make it nine of 11 tonight when he takes on rookie John Doherty in the series finale.
The six-game homestand, which concludes with a weekend series against the last-place Cleveland Indians, represents a major opportunity for the Orioles to pick up ground on the Blue Jays before next week's four-game showdown at SkyDome.
The Orioles cannot complain about the timing. They are finally on a roll after struggling to play .500 ball for much of June and July. The five-game winning streak has pushed them 15 games over .500, equaling the high-water mark for the season.
"That's not long enough yet," said Oates, who has been waiting for the club to make a major move. "The pitching is coming around, and we're hitting well. Hopefully, it will continue for a few weeks."
Once again, it was a diversified effort. Bill Ripken drove in a couple of more runs. Brady Anderson had three hits. Glenn Davis and Leo Gomez each had a run-scoring hit. But Sutcliffe couldn't do it alone. Todd Frohwirth got him out of the eighth, and Gregg Olson pitched the ninth to record his 26th save.
Sutcliffe had to be wondering where his next victory was going to come from. He had endured a winless July and was beginning to doubt himself -- if his comments after last week's loss to the New York Yankees were any indication.
He told reporters that he had lost confidence in his breaking pitches and was depending almost entirely on his fastball. Manager Johnny Oates wondered aloud whether the club had worked Sutcliffe too hard in the first half of the season. There were plenty of hard questions and no hard answers.
So, Sutcliffe headed to the mound last night burdened by doubt, but something happened in the next few minutes that helped to change his frame of mind. Someone cranked up Bruce Springsteen's "Better Days" on the public address system, and the normally intense Sutcliffe just had to crack a smile.
He had gone to see Springsteen in concert last week with trainer Jamie Reed and public relations director Rick Vaughn. "Better Days" was the opening number.
"I usually go out there all mad and intense," he said. "That might have been the first time I ever smiled while I was warming up. I had to laugh at that because I knew they [Reed and Vaughn] had something to do with it."
The struggling Tigers helped, too. Sutcliffe gave up just one hit through the first five innings and Tigers starter Kurt Knudsen was fortunate to get through two. The Orioles batted around to score four times in the first and give their slumping starter a chance to work things out in a depressurized situation.
Knudsen was under fire from the moment he stepped on the mound. He gave up a leadoff single to Brady Anderson and a gap double to Mike Devereaux before Cal Ripken gave the Orioles the lead with a sacrifice fly to center. The inning turned into a walk-a-thon after that, with three of the next four batters reaching base on balls to bring home another run.
Bill Ripken did the rest, slicing an opposite-field single to score two more runs and stake Sutcliffe to a 4-0 lead.
The month of August as begun well for Ripken. In his first four games, he has six hits and has driven in six runs. Since the beginning of July, he is batting .310 and has raised his average from .206 to .241.
The hottest Orioles hitter has been Davis, who stayed that way with a run-scoring single in the second inning. He has hit safely in 18 of his past 19 games and is batting .410 in his past 23 games.