TORONTO -- They came not to be buried, and the Orioles pulled off that part of their mission in style.
But satisfied would be the wrong word to describe the Orioles' feelings after winning two of the first three games of the series against the Toronto Blue Jays. "There's another one to go," manager John Oates said after last night's 11-4 win that brought the Orioles to within one game of first place.
However, as important as this afternoon's game figured to be, the Orioles knew they made a statement with last night's win. They took an early 3-0 lead, lost it, then came right back to take charge, building a 10-3 lead in the fifth inning.
The resiliency was impressive, and nobody appreciated it more than Randy Milligan. The first baseman has been through all the nightmares at SkyDome, particularly the tense final weekend of the 1989 season, when the Orioles were eliminated on the next-to-last day.
Like most people, Milligan said before the series that if the Orioles came away from these four games no worse than when they went in (two games behind) it would be a success. Winning two straight after their best pitcher, Mike Mussina, had been hammered in the opening game, makes it even more impressive.
"It's an awesome series for the Orioles," Milligan said after last night's win, "and we've still got one game left. I'm as happy as can be -- there's been some bad memories here."
He didn't have to be reminded. The Blue Jays swept the first three games of the year between the teams back in April. They had won 10 of the last 13 meetings here before Tuesday night. Before that game and dating back to the final agonizing weekend in 1989, the Blue Jays had won seven of the last 20 games at SkyDome in their final at-bat.
The Orioles desperately needed to make a statement. A team can't expect to win if it can't compete against the defending champion. Going in, everybody said this series would not make or break the season. What wasn't said -- but both teams knew -- was that the Orioles had to step up if they had any notion of reaching the next level.
They did that the last two nights, first shutting out the Blue Jays, then putting them away with a barrage of runs. They haven't won anything yet, and they're still the underdog in this fight, but the Orioles did step up and make a statement.
Milligan was asked for a word to describe the atmosphere in the Orioles' clubhouse. He shunned standards like "confident," or "positive," or "optimistic."
And he certainly wasn't about to say "satisfied."
The feeling deserved its own word and, after pondering the question for a few seconds, Milligan found it. "Bubbly," he said. "I'd say the feeling was bubbly."
Which was not to suggest that the Orioles felt they were suddenly in control of the race. Only that they have re-established themselves, once again, as a legitimate contender.
If they didn't realize it before, the Blue Jays now understand their earlier expectations of putting the rest of the division away by Labor Day was an unrealistic fantasy. They are good, maybe still the best team in the division, but they're not unbeatable.
"The first thing coming in here was that we didn't want to get buried," said Oates. "We've accomplished that and now we've got a chance to leave in a tie for first."
After three games, that realistically was all the Orioles could have expected -- and after losing 8-4 Monday night, it was all they could have hoped for going into the final game of the series.
"That [bouncing back from the opening-game loss] is indicative of what this team has done all year," said Oates. "Whether it's coming back after a bad inning, a bad game or a bad streak -- they've done it all year."
It has gone unnoticed until recently, but the Blue Jays and Orioles have been moving slowly, but steadily, in opposite directions since the All-Star break. The Orioles are 16-11, the Blue Jays 13-14 -- and that's not the most important statistic.
After a midseason slump, and two changes in the starting rotation, the Orioles' pitching staff has made a significant turnaround. The team earned run average has declined steadily to its present 3.80, thanks in large measure to an American League-leading 11 shutouts.
On the flip side, it's not a pretty picture for the Blue Jays. With Juan Guzman on the disabled list and last night's loser Jimmy Key (7-10) struggling, Toronto's ERA has risen to 4.01. That figure since the All-Star break is 5.31 and the ERA of their starting pitchers in the last 10 games is a woeful 9.49.
In addition, the Blue Jays are playing a stationary defense and it was exposed in last night's walkover. The Orioles bounced hits through every conceivable area of the infield to roll up ...L...LTC somewhat deceiving margin of victory, adding to Toronto's torment.
They are still in first place, but the Blue Jays are starting to look like they're doing the chasing.
Ten of the Orioles' 11 RBI last night were by their outfielders. Their batting lines:
Player ... ... ... AB ... ... R ... ... H ... ... RBI
Brady Anderson ... 3 .. .. .. 2 ... ... 1 ... ... 2
Mike Devereaux ... 5 .. .. .. 1 ... ... 3 ... ... 5
Joe Orsulak .. ... 5 .. .. .. 1 ... ... 1 ... ... 3
Whistling in the dark?
"I'm in a slump and I'll just have to fight my way through it," said losing Toronto pitcher Jimmy Key after last night's 11-4 Orioles victory. "It's a bad time for it, too. It's getting close to crunch time. But I can't just snap my fingers and expect things to turn around. Fortunately, we're still a game down with about 50 games to go. There's still plenty of time to get it turned around."