The Orioles were 90 feet away from keeping hope alive last night, but they could not complete the late-inning comeback that would have kept them -- for the moment, at least -- in realistic pursuit of the American League East title.
Pinch runner Tim Hulett was at third base with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. Mark McLemore lofted a fly ball to shallow center field. But third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr. chose not to gamble the potential tying run, and the Toronto Blue Jays held on to score a 4-3 victory that dropped the Orioles six games out of first place with 12 games left to play.
Should he have sent Hulett? Ripken stood firmly behind his decision, which sent the game down to a bases-loaded, two-out situation with Mike Devereaux at the plate. Devereaux flied out to end the game and with it, any hope that the club could get back into the division race.
"I'm looking right at the ball," Ripken said. "You're not going to get the tying run thrown out at the plate to end the game. The man is out at the plate if I send him. I guarantee it."
Center fielder Devon White caught the ball in shallow center and made a throw to the plate that was far enough up the line to leave open the possibility that Hulett would have scored, but no one could have known that in advance.
"Senior had a tough decision," manager Johnny Oates said. "Put yourself in his position. It would be the easiest thing in the world to say he should have sent him after you see the ball go up the line. From where he was standing, White had a chance to throw him out."
It didn't figure to come down to that, not after Rick Sutcliffe left in the fourth inning with back spasms and Blue Jays starter Todd Stottlemyre held the Orioles to one run on two hits through the first six innings. But the Toronto right-hander gave up a run in the seventh and reliever Duane Ward surrendered a run in the eighth to leave the game in the hands of stopper Tom Henke.
Henke survived the scary ninth to record his 31st save, retiring Devereaux in the kind of bases-loaded situation that has become his calling card this year.
For awhile, it looked like the only suspense would come from the rainstorm that delayed the start of the game for two hours and 40 minutes, but it turned out to be one of the most exciting finishes in an exciting first season at Camden Yards.
It was not a season-buster, because the Orioles would have been the longest of long shots even if they had won the game, but it was a tough loss for a team that finally found some fire in the final innings of play.
Everyone knew the score before the game even started. The Orioles needed to sweep their three-game showdown series with Toronto to have any real chance of getting back into the AL East race.
Oates reaffirmed before the game that his club's only hope was a series sweep of the first-place Blue Jays, who had held off a serious challenge from Baltimore earlier this month and picked up significant ground while the Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers damaged each other's chances during seven recent head-to-head matchups.
"I told the guys, 'Go out and give it your best shot,' " Oates said before the game, "and if you lose you can go home tonight with your heads up."
The Orioles have far exceeded anyone's preseason expectations by remaining in the pennant race until late September, but it will not be easy to go home feeling good about what has happened over the past three weeks.
The offense dried up and the pitching -- however solid -- could not be expected to hold things together forever.
Oates had hoped that Sutcliffe could make the difference. He altered the starting rotation and sent his most experienced pitcher to the mound on three days rest in back-to-back starts, hoping to squeeze an extra start out of him at season's end. The reasoning was solid, but the results have not been pretty.
Sutcliffe gave up seven runs in just 2 2/3 innings in his previous outing. He came back last night to give up four runs in 3 1/3 innings before his erratic control convinced Oates that the back soreness was serious enough to warrant a pitching change. Mark Williamson pitched well in relief. So did Gregg Olson. But it was not to be.
The driving rain would have made the field unplayable if not for Oriole Park's moisture-absorbing Prescription Athletic Turf. Sutcliffe finally took the mound at 10:15 p.m. and got a rude greeting from White, the Blue Jays' leadoff man.
White launched a high fly ball to right field that carried to the flag court for his 17th home run. It was not a mammoth shot by any means, but the ball seemed to be carrying very well after the driving rain cooled off the evening.
The early innings also featured an exchange of inside pitches that left Glenn Davis and Candy Maldonado looking like the bruise brothers. Stottlemyre bounced a fastball off Davis' hip after Cal Ripken's two-out double in the first. Sutcliffe responded with a fastball that hit Maldonado in the upper back to lead off the second.