DETROIT -- In explaining the Orioles' disappointing standing at the end of July, owner Peter Angelos referred to the lack of depth in the bullpen.
It'll be a whole lot better next year, he said. The transformation didn't take that long: The Orioles have possibly the deepest bullpen in the American League right now, and the relievers gave the Orioles a chance to come back from a five-run deficit last night and beat Detroit, 7-6, at Tiger Stadium.
An important recovery, for had the Orioles lost, they would've fallen 4 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East. As they draw ever closer to the three-game series that starts Tuesday in New York, the Orioles, who have won seven of their last eight, are 3 1/2 games behind the Yankees and 1 1/2 games ahead of Chicago in the wild-card race.
Todd Zeile hit his fifth homer in 15 games for the Orioles to ignite a four-run rally in the seventh inning. It was the team's 238th home run of the year, two short of the '61 Yankees' record of 240.
But the Orioles hit lots of homers in May, June and July and didn't win consistently. It wasn't until the ingredients of the bullpen began to change that the Orioles started to turn around their season.
For four months, Johnson lamented the lack of right-handed relief. But Archie Corbin was promoted Aug. 6, Alan Mills started throwing better in mid-August, the Orioles traded for Terry Mathews on Aug. 21 and Armando Benitez was activated Aug. 26.
They've all been effective in their roles since then, capable of rescuing the Orioles' starters, as they did last night.
David Wells started and had to stop in the bottom of the second inning for a 30-minute rain delay, and when the game resumed, he wasn't the same. The Orioles led 1-0, but Phil Nevin hit a two-run homer off Wells in the fourth, and after giving up a run on a double, sacrifice and groundout in the fifth, Wells -- whose 1.9 walks per nine innings led the AL -- walked Travis Fryman and Ruben Sierra.
Tony Clark hit a high fly to right, and once the ball got up in the air, a strong wind blew it into the stands for a three-run homer. Detroit led 6-1.
But Mathews took over and retired Nevin on a groundout and shut out the Tigers in the sixth and seventh innings. By then, the Orioles had taken a 7-6 lead; normally, Mills pitches the eighth inning.
However, Mills had thrown 1 2/3 innings Friday night and Johnson wanted to give Mills and left-hander Jesse Orosco the night off. ++ So Benitez came on for the eighth, and struck out two of the three hitters he faced. Randy Myers closed out the Tigers in the ninth -- allowing runners to reach second and third but not home -- for his 29th save.
Johnson said after the game that the Orioles' bullpen, in its current composition, is better than any bullpen he's ever had. "And I've had some good ones," Johnson said.
The difference between the bullpen now and a month ago? "Night and day," he said. "I've got some weapons. Tonight, I had the luxury of resting Mills and Orosco, and tomorrow, I've got a couple of good guys available [Mills and Orosco] and Myers."
Pitching coach Pat Dobson said: "We've got four right-handers out there who can throw 95 mph."
Mathews said: "Millsy is really throwing the ball hard. Armando, every time he pitches he strikes out a lot of guys [including two of three he faced last night]. Everybody is confident. It's easy to get on a roll, because everyone is doing a good job."
The bullpen held the Tigers. The offense brought the Orioles back.
"One of the things I noticed when I came over here is that no matter how far behind we are," Mathews said, "if we keep the score where it is when we come in, we have a good chance to win the game. We're very capable of putting up four or five runs in an inning."
Or over two innings. The Orioles' runs usually come in bunches, on homers. Last night, they did little things and bunched little hits to score.
Down 6-1, the Orioles cut the lead to 6-3 in the sixth, the first run scoring on Eddie Murray's RBI single, and the second when Murray disrupted a double play by throwing his legs into shortstop Travis Fryman; Fryman's throw to first was off-line, and Cal Ripken scored from third.
"[Murray] got out there pretty good and made the shortstop come way out," said third base coach Sam Perlozzo. "He had to throw [to the side] and B. J. got down the line."
Zeile homered off Detroit reliever John Cummings leading off the seventh, and after Cummings retired the next two hitters, the Orioles mounted a deliberate rally.
Ripken walked, Murray singled and Surhoff hit a broken-bat single over second to score Ripken.
Right-hander Richie Lewis relieved Cummings and walked Chris Hoiles, re-loading the bases, and Detroit manager Buddy Bell called on left-hander Joey Eischen.
He wasn't any better than Lewis, walking Brady Anderson on four pitches to force in the tying run, and giving up a run-scoring single to Alomar that proved to be the deciding hit.