TORONTO -- The Orioles departed SkyDome no higher in the standings than when they arrived, but that doesn't necessarily mean that their showdown series with the Toronto Blue Jays ended in a wash.
The Blue Jays scored two runs in the eighth inning yesterday to take a 4-2 victory and salvage a split of the four-game series, but the Orioles took something out of Canada that may help them put more pressure on the division leaders down the stretch.
"We knew we were in these ballgames," second baseman Bill Ripken said. "We know we played with them. The two wins here were big, because we proved we can win in the dome. We know we've got a good team. We feel we can win and we feel we can catch them."
That confidence did not arrive just this week, but it was reinforced by the Orioles' performance the past three days. They were beaten soundly in the series opener and were in position to have their division title hopes seriously damaged if the fallout from that defeat had carried over into the ensuing games.
Instead, they scored a tough, 3-0 victory on Tuesday night and trounced the Blue Jays, 11-4, in the third game. They could have moved into a first-place tie with a victory yesterday, but rookie Doug Linton held them to three hits over eight innings to out-duel Orioles rookie Arthur Rhodes and record his first major-league victory.
Disappointing? Manager Johnny Oates said it was. Ripken admitted that it would have been "awfully nice" to take three of four games. Mike Devereaux, whose dropped fly ball led to an important run, said that nobody was satisfied with a split after taking two of the first three. They all said the right things, but the situation is a little more complicated than that.
On the surface, the Orioles ran four days off the schedule without gaining any ground on the Blue Jays, which would appear to work in To ronto's favor. In reality, the Blue Jays got to see up close that they have their work cut out for them. They now have to face the likelihood that the Orioles are in it for the long run, which can only add to the pressure that already comes with being the team that is supposed to win the division with ease.
The Orioles had turned up the heat on the Blue Jays during the 10 days before their arrival here. They came in just two games down in the standings and the split kept them right on the threshold with the Blue Jays set to begin a difficult 12-game road trip, beginning tonight in Cleveland.
It would have been even more difficult if Linton had not risen to the occasion and held the Orioles in check until Roberto Alomar and Candy Maldonado could deliver run-scoring hits to break a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning.
When it was over, Oates was asked if he saw anything this week to convince him that the Orioles would overtake the Blue Jays and win the American League East title.
"I would rather say that nothing has happened to convince me that they've got us beat," Oates said.
Nothing indeed. The Blue Jays still are wondering how long it will take to put their starting rotation back together. Linton's three-hit performance was encouraging, but the outlook for 12-game winner Juan Guzman remains uncertain and the performance of the other full-time starters has been erratic.
The Orioles, meanwhile, have gotten their rotation back together just in time to head down the stretch. The performances of Alan Mills on Wednesday and Rhodes yesterday did nothing to erode the club's rising level of confidence.
Rhodes would suffer the loss after the Blue Jays knocked him out of the game with back-to-back hits to open the eighth, but his seven-inning, seven-hit performance under pennant pressure only reinforced the notion that the club is coming together at just the right moment.
"I just like our ballclub," Oates said. "I like our chances. We're loose. We're playing with confidence. I like our rotation and I like our bullpen."
The only problem yesterday was the batting order, which ran into predictable problems against a finesse pitcher that few members of the club had ever faced.
Linton had made just three relief appearances at the major-league level this year. He had pitched in the International League, so some of the younger Orioles had seen him there, but he took full advantage of his anonymity.
"He pretty much pitched backward," said outfielder Mike Devereaux. "He threw a lot of off-speed stuff in fastball situations. That was tough to adjust to."
It didn't look like he was going to be so effective early on. Glenn Davis led off the second inning with his 10th home run of the year, which evened the score after Joe Carter greeted Rhodes with a bases-empty homer in the bottom of the first.
The Blue Jays regained the lead in the bottom of the second after a deep fly ball by Kelly Gruber popped out of Devereaux's glove for a generously scored triple. Randy Knorr brought Gruber home.
Linton was working on a string of 15 straight outs when Cal Ripken opened the seventh with a double and scored on Randy Milligan's fly.
That was the setup for the decisive rally of the game. Rhodes gave up a leadoff single to Devon White in the seventh and served up an RBI double to the gap by Alomar that would prove decisive.
Reliever Tom Henke took it from there. The Orioles had made a run at the Blue Jays stopper in the ninth inning of Monday night's loss, but this time Henke retired the side in order to record his 21st save.