It was a game that scared up all those old, familiar reasons not to trust the Orioles in September.
With an opportunity to knock out the White Sox last night at Camden Yards, they came up flat.
Their listless performance conjured up memories of their failed runs at the playoffs in 1992 and 1993; memories of teams that tempted and lost.
Manager Davey Johnson called Mike Mussina's pitch selection "terrible" after the White Sox's 11-3 win.
Mussina, who lasted just 3 2/3 innings, said, "It looked like we weren't as prepared [to play] as we had been."
Granted, the Orioles had won five games in a row and it was time they threw in a clunker.
It also was asking a lot to expect them to sweep the Sox, a solid team with deep starting pitching.
"You can't win every game," second baseman Roberto Alomar said.
But the opportunity was there last night.
"You could have killed [the Sox] tonight," someone said to Mussina.
"Woulda, coulda, shoulda," Mussina said. "They won the game."
The Orioles had a two-run lead after the first inning, with Mussina on the mound going for his ninth win in 10 starts and 20th win overall.
A win would have given the Orioles a 2 1/2 -game lead in the wild-card race.
A pretty attractive set of circumstances.
4 But Mussina held the lead for just four batters.
He gave up three singles to start the second inning, then fed a fastball to Sox catcher Pat Borders, who put it over the fence for a three-run homer.
Johnson clearly was disappointed in his ace.
"Borders is a first-ball, fastball hitter and we gave him one right there," Johnson said.
"I made some bad pitches and basically just didn't get the job done," Mussina said. "I never felt right out there. Some days you just struggle from the start."
The Orioles had scored a couple of terrific wins against the White Sox on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, but you could almost feel their fire extinguish when Borders' homer cleared the fence.
They managed just two hits and one run in the last eight innings against Sox starter Alex Fernandez, who won his 14th game with a dominating performance.
"When we got two runs and they came right back with four, it's bound to take some wind out of your sails," Johnson said. "You're going to look lethargic. It wasn't for a lack of enthusiasm."
Johnson was spinning the night positively.
"I feel great," he said. "We won two out of three from the Sox. We're playing good ball. We're playing better against good teams. We just didn't get it done tonight. We'll turn the page on this one real quick."
Mussina's take was less buoyant, perhaps because he has worn an Oriole uniform the past few years and experienced their tendency to lose when it matters most.
"It's a long season, but this was a pretty big game," Mussina said. "There have been a couple of times this season when we had a chance to sweep a team and finish strong, and we didn't get it done. I'm disappointed that I couldn't hold up my end tonight."
The lesson was clear.
Those two terrific wins against the Sox didn't assure anything.
In the end, the Sox got out of town just a half-game behind the Orioles.
And with the Yankees finishing a sweep of the Tigers yesterday afternoon, the Orioles lost ground to the Yankees for only the second time in 16 days.
Twenty-nine wins in 45 games has revived the Orioles' once-dead season and put them back in contention for the playoffs, but now comes the hard part:
Finishing what they started.
The Orioles haven't done it in years.
In 1992, they were a half-game out of first place on Sept. 7 and finished seven out.
In 1993, they were a game out on Sept. 8 and finished 10 out.
Sure, the roster has been almost completely overhauled since then, but the ghost of past failures looms over the organization.
"We'll find out in Detroit and New York what we have to play for in the last week," Mussina said.
Until last night, the Orioles had given all sorts of indications that they were ready to erase their recent history of failure.
They were battering home runs, coming from behind to win and exuding the kind of swagger that carries teams to the postseason. It didn't hurt that the Yankees were in a full panic.
Camden Yards had never housed the kind of positive vibrations that were floating around on Tuesday and Wednesday, as the Orioles played two of their toughest and best games of the season.
But a pennant race is a tense, funny creature; it changes its look every day.
One loss, and the Orioles are back to 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees.
One loss, and the White Sox are almost dead even in the wild-card race.
The Orioles are finishing strong, but there are no guarantees.
Pub Date: 9/13/96