Time is beginning to work against the Orioles, but they have been working against themselves for more than a week now.
Milwaukee Brewers phenom Cal Eldred put another dent in their playoff drive, holding them to four hits on the way to a 3-1, complete-game victory that dropped the Orioles five games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.
The big picture: The Orioles are five games back with 20 games to play, which means the Blue Jays will have to get a quick case of vapor lock to let the division race get away.
The little picture: The team that was just a half-game behind Toronto eight days ago has lost six of seven games and slipped into an offensive slump at the wrong time. If the Orioles don't do something at the plate soon, it won't matter what the Blue Jays do the rest of the way.
"Right now, we're not playing well enough to be No. 1," manager Johnny Oates said. "Our pitching has been adequate, but we scored four runs in the last three games."
The Orioles won the first game of the series to move to within three games of the Blue Jays, but Brewers pitchers Jaime Navarro and Eldred combined to hold them to a run on nine hits during the final two games of the series. The Blue Jays won both days, concluding a 3-for-4 weekend with a 7-2 victory over the Texas Rangers yesterday.
Oates knows the score -- he shuffled the lineup in an attempt to wake up the offense yesterday -- but he gave credit where credit was due. Eldred, after all, has been one of the best pitchers in the majors since he was recalled from the Triple-A Denver Zephyrs in July. The victory yesterday was his eighth in nine decisions, and it dropped his ERA to 1.26.
"We haven't been swinging the bat very well," Oates said, "but, in all honesty, that kid looked as good as anybody we've faced in a long time. We didn't even have many good swings against him."
Eldred struck out the first four batters and went on to set a personal strikeout best with 12 -- the most by a Brewers pitcher in more than four years. He had pitched 23 consecutive scoreless innings when the Orioles finally pushed a run across in the eighth to break an 18-inning scoreless streak of their own.
The series victory pulled the Brewers to within a game of the second-place Orioles, though both teams lost ground to the Blue Jays.
"When you play on the road, it is fantastic to win two out of three games," Eldred said. "We've got an idea of catching Toronto, but right now we have to catch Baltimore. We don't feel any extra pressure now. Nobody expected anything of the Brewers this year, so we have nothing to lose."
Perhaps the Orioles should feel the same way. They were considered a third-place team at best when the season began, but have built enough credibility during the past five months to make a third-place finish a disappointment.
Oates has been scrambling to get the offense moving. He moved Tim Hulett into the lineup at third base. He gave David Segui a start at first base and batted him second. Chito Martinez was in right field. Jeff Tackett was behind the plate.
It didn't do any good, though Hulett and Tackett combined to account for three of the team's four hits. Hulett had a single and a triple in three at-bats. Tackett doubled in three at-bats.
"I have no idea who to put in the lineup right now," Oates said. "I think it's pretty obvious -- if you look at us this year -- that if Brady [Anderson] and Mike Devereaux don't hit, we don't do a lot."
Right-hander Ben McDonald did his part. He worked into the seventh inning and gave up two runs on nine hits, but two runs would be enough to drop his record to 12-11. He had given up one earned run in each of his previous two starts and took no-decisions both times.
"I've pitched three pretty good games in a row, and five of my last six have been quality starts," McDonald said. "I'm pitching the way I want to pitch. It's going to pay off sooner or later. When you give up one, one and two earned runs, you expect to win, but sometimes it doesn't turn out that way."
The Brewers got both their runs off McDonald on three one-out hits and a run-scoring ground out in the second inning. Greg Vaughn and Kevin Seitzer hit back-to-back singles, and Dave Nilsson delivered an RBI double to break the scoreless tie. Scott Fletcher followed with a grounder to second to score Seitzer.
If Oates had played the infield up, he might have prevented one of the runs, but he did not second-guess his decision to align the infielders at normal depth at that early point in the game.
"I can't play up that early," he said. "Fletcher is like Billy [Ripken]. He's going to do what he has to do. You have to figure if we can't score two runs, we don't deserve to win."
Oates also passed up opportunities to use some of his resting regulars to pinch hit in the late innings, but there was no way to argue his logic on that count either.