CLEVELAND -- The Orioles embarked on this nine-game road trip with all the leading indicators pointing to a down-to-the-wire finish in American League East, but the prospects for a division title have diminished at every stop.
The situation is now bordering on hopeless after a 6-4 loss in the opener of a three-game series against the Indians at Cleveland Stadium. The Orioles are 5 1/2 games out of first place with 12 games to play, and the '64 Phillies are not in their division.
This was a series the Orioles had to sweep, but the Indians rallied from a three-run deficit with a middle-inning rush and sent the Orioles to their fifth loss in seven games on the trip.
If that wasn't bad enough, the loss was delivered in part by a couple of the ghosts of the off-season past. Former Orioles first baseman Randy Milligan delivered a two-run single to complete the comeback and right-hander Bob Milacki pitched an inning of relief to get his first major-league victory as a non-Oriole.
What are the odds? Milligan and Milacki, who were not tendered contracts by the Dec. 20 deadline last year, were right there when the wheels came off the division drive.
Milligan had doubled in his first at-bat, but the ball that did the damage was a bouncer up the middle that took a kangaroo hop over the glove of shortstop Cal Ripken to drive in the final two runs of a four-run fifth inning. The Indians added two more runs with the help of some shabby fielding in the sixth, and the Orioles could not recover.
The loss cost them only a half-game in the standings because the first-place Toronto Blue Jays did not play yesterday, but it was another discouraging step backward nonetheless.
"Sure, I'd like to be 9-0 on this road trip," manager Johnny Oates said, "but sometimes you have to face the facts of life. I don't know how many games this ballclub will end up winning, but we're going to win as many as wecan. Sometimes, you may not win as many as you'd like and you may not win as many as the experts say you should win."
Starter Fernando Valenzuela (7-10) worked four innings and gave up four runs on six hits. He started strong but wilted in a shower of hits in the fifth and came up winless for the 10th time in his past 11 starts. Reliever Todd Frohwirth surrendered the two runs that proved decisive in the sixth.
Frohwirth actually pitched well enough to bail Valenzuela out of the fifth with a one-run lead. He came on to strike out Albert Belle and would have had a second out on the pitch if Chris Hoiles had not thrown high to third on a steal attempt by Mark Lewis. Milligan followed with the sharp bouncer to short that would have been an out if it had not found a hard spot on the uneven Cleveland Stadium infield.
"Froh did a super job as far as I'm concerned," Oates said. "He struck out Albert Belle -- which isn't easy -- and we should get the guy at third. Then he got a ground ball up the middle. You can't ask for more than that."
The Indians scored two runs in the sixth on a couple of balls that glanced off the glove of David Segui and a throwing error by Harold Reynolds, but Oates did not complain about the defensive effort.
"In my heart, I know that this ballclub is playing as hard as it can," Oates said. "We made some mistakes, but I can handle aggressive mistakes."
Valenzuela was coming off his first victory and first complete game since July 23. He went the distance and allowed three runs to register the Orioles' only win in the three-game series against the Boston Red Sox that opened this trip.
He gave up a long double in each of the first two innings last night, but held the Indians scoreless until the Orioles could get on the board. Pagliarulo staked him to a two-run lead in the fourth with his sixth home run since joining the club Aug. 15, and Brady Anderson added an RBI single in the fifth to increase Valenzuela's margin for error. It wouldn't be big enough.
The Orioles' offense could be excused for coming up empty against Brewers 15-game winner Cal Eldred on Friday and hard-throwing Angel Miranda on Saturday, but Indians starter Dave Mlicki didn't figure to dominate. He was making his first major-league start since undergoing shoulder surgery and his first start above the Double-A level this year.
He left the game after giving up the two-run homer in the fourth. Milacki came on to surrender a run in the fifth, but was in position to get the victory after Milligan's two-run single put the Indians in front. If that was particularly satisfying to the 29-year-old right-hander, it didn't show.
"I was just trying to do my best no matter who is out there," Milacki said. "It's great to beat a team that's in the pennant race. Since we've been eliminated, that's something to look forward to."