MILWAUKEE -- Talk about a range of emotion. The Orioles had a three-run lead at County Stadium. The Toronto Blue Jays were losing at SkyDome. It was a tiny window of opportunity, to be sure, but it still hurt when it slammed shut in the sixth inning yesterday.
The Milwaukee Brewers scored eight times in that inning to run away with a 9-3 victory and further establish themselves as the only team remaining with a legitimate chance to challenge the Blue Jays for the American League East title.
There still might have been hope if the Orioles could have shaved a game off their 5 1/2 -game divisional deficit and then inched a little closer with a victory in the series finale tonight. But the eight-run blowup left them so discouraged that manager Johnny Oates felt compelled to deliver a post-game lecture on the importance of perseverance.
"What I said in here we'll keep in the clubhouse," Oates said, "but the idea is, 'Don't quit now. Play hard and don't let what happened in the last four innings happen again.' I just wanted to nip it in the bud before it becomes cancerous."
Oates wants to make sure that the club's surprising season is not spoiled by a depressing finish. The Orioles were making a nice little run at the Blue Jays a couple of weeks ago, but the offense has run dry, and the club has slipped to the fringe of the division race.
Left-hander Craig Lefferts seemed intent on picking up the club yesterday. He was winless in his first two starts as an Oriole, but he took a no-hit bid into the fourth inning and appeared to be on his way to his first American League victory when the Orioles scored three times in the fifth.
Just to put the rally in perspective: The club had not scored as many as three runs in an inning since Sept. 4. The 3-0 lead was a luxury not many other Orioles pitchers have enjoyed during the past few weeks, but it disappeared in a hurry.
Lefferts gave up hits to the first two batters he faced in the sixth and gave way to a parade of relievers, but the normally solid Orioles bullpen allowed six more hits in an ugly inning that pushed the club to the brink of a four-game sweep.
There also were a couple of defensive lapses. Twice with runners at first and third, the Orioles fell victim to familiar Brewers base-running gambits. Both times, left-hander Jim Poole was successful in throwing behind the runner at first. Both times, the Orioles did not record an out.
The first time, first baseman Randy Milligan conceded second base to Darryl Hamilton. The second time, he threw to shortstop Cal Ripken, who threw to third baseman Leo Gomez, whose throw to the plate hit Hamilton in the back.
By the time the inning was over, the game was, too. The Orioles went down very quietly after that. Pitcher Todd Frohwirth failed to cover first in the seventh. The Brewers took a base on a missed cutoff. They played out the string.
"That's what this Milwaukee ballclub does to you," Oates said, "but the last four innings, we're fundamentallly better than that. It just wasn't very pretty those last four innings."
Oates came into the season with a specific philosophy. He said on Opening Day that he wanted the team to be better on the last day of the season than it was on the first. There was little doubt a month ago that he would get his wish, but the club now is threatening to backslide during the final weeks of the season. Hence the meeting after yesterday's game.
"You start working last October, and then you go to spring training and play 30 games to get in shape for the championship season," he said. "Then you get to a point after 140-some games where you see some improvement in the ballclub. That's the reason we discussed a few things -- it was, 'Hey, don't be satisfied with where we are.' "
By any standard, 1992 will go down as a very successful year for the Orioles. They were not expected to be a strong contender, and they stayed within striking distance of the Blue Jays all summer long. They also moved into a new stadium and have sold out almost every game.
"People see you in Baltimore, and they tell you it's been a great summer and you've provided them with a lot of thrills," Oates said. "That's great, but we can't be satisfied with that. I don't want the last two weeks to become something that will erase the first six months in their memories."
They have not been mathematically eliminated from the division race, but they are 5 1/2 games out with 14 games left. It would take a comeback to match any in baseball history to get them into the playoffs.
The race figured to come down to the final two series against the Brewers, which were separated by just four days. One of the teams needed to take advantage of the seven head-to-head meetings to make a move on the Blue Jays. The Brewers have won five of the first six.
Now, they need to win today and hope the Orioles step forward during the three-game series against Toronto that begins tomorrow night at Camden Yards.