TORONTO -- It was as close to a must-win situation as the Orioles have faced this year, and the pitching matchup did not appear to be in their favor.
Alan Mills vs. Jack Morris.
Converted middle reliever vs. potential Hall of Famer.
Obviously, things are not always as they seem.
Mills pitched five scoreless innings in his second start of the season and combined with two relievers on an eight-hit shutout as the Orioles scored a 3-0 victory over the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays and pulled back within two games of first place in the American League East.
Right fielder Joe Orsulak helped out with four hits, which equaled the number the Blue Jays managed during Mills' gutty performance. The victory was his first as a starter at the major-league level and his eighth of the season. It was also the biggest of his professional career.
Right-hander Todd Frohwirth followed him to the mound and gave up two hits over three innings before turning the game over to stopper Gregg Olson, who pitched a scary SkyDome ninth to record his 27th save of the season.
Orioles manager Johnny Oates was not around to see it end. He was ejected by plate umpire Drew Coble for joining in an argument over a called third strike on Cal Ripken in the top of the seventh inning.
Oates saw what he wanted to see, however. He saw Mills show tremendous poise in a game that the Orioles needed. The loss on Monday night -- when Orioles starter Mike Mussina (11-5) was favored to beat Toronto's Todd Stottlemyre (7-7) -- had left them in position to get steamrollered if Morris had proved to be the same big-game pitcher who made such an impression during last year's World Series.
"No doubt about it, this game was bigger than last night's," Oates said. "You talk about the importance of the first game of the series, but the second game of the series is even more important for the team that loses the first."
The Orioles would have been four games off the pace and still facing the possibility of a four-game sweep. They needed a victory to depressurize the series, and Mills -- who could have been forgiven for feeling the pressure -- gave it to them. His performance solidified his place in the starting rotation and left // Oates to look wistfully ahead to a promising future.
"I never like to project too far ahead, but I can get pretty excited thinking about throwing the four arms we're throwing in this series [Mussina, Mills, Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes] back-to-back-to-back-to-back for a few years to come," he said.
Mills has pitched well in each of his first two starts this year after winning seven games as a reliever. The victory improved his record to 8-2 and dropped his ERA to 1.83.
Morris has been a walking, talking statistical aberration this year. He came into last night's game with 10 victories in his previous 11 starts and is on pace to win 20 games, but his 4.54 ERA is hardly the stuff of which dream seasons are made.
If he continues to win and give up runs at the same pace, he would end up with the third-highest ERA for a 20-game winner in modern major-league history (since 1900).
No one doubts he can do it. The Blue Jays are an explosive offensive team and Morris is a dependable pitcher who figures to hang around long enough to get some run support, but he showed again last night that he is far from invincible.
He struck out four of the first eight batters he faced, but quickly lost his lock on the strike zone. He walked two batters in a row with two outs in the third before working out of trouble, then walked home a run in a three-run fourth. Those three runs would be all he would give up over seven innings, but they were enough to drop his record to 14-5.
"Jack always seems to give us some rope and then pulls it away from us," Oates said. "We were lucky to get three runs there. Fortunately for us, we were able to make them hold up."
The Orioles sent eight batters to the plate in that inning. They loaded the bases with no one out on a leadoff walk to Glenn Davis and consecutive singles by Orsulak and David Segui. Morris struck out Leo Gomez on three pitches to get within a double-play ball of getting out of the inning, but he still had to get past the last two hitters in the batting order.
The eighth and ninth places in the lineup are not traditional run-production slots, but the Orioles have not had an orthodox season. They entered the game with 113 RBI from the No. 8 and 9 hitters, and added two more when Bill Ripken dropped a soft single into right field and Mark Parent drew the bases-loaded walk.
Brady Anderson, who isn't in a traditional run-production role either, brought home the third run of the inning with a sacrifice fly to left that gave him his 64th RBI of the year. He remains on pace to drive in more than 90 runs this year, which would break Harvey Kuenn's 36-year-old major-league record for RBI from the leadoff slot (85).