Just when the Orioles had begun to believe things couldn't get any worse, the Philadelphia Phillies gave a lesson in bad.
Mike Mussina and Cal Ripken enforced it as Mussina (10-2) pitched eight-plus innings for career win No. 100 and Ripken cracked his first home run in 101 at-bats -- a third-inning grand slam -- to push the Orioles to an 8-1 win before 47,837 at Camden Yards.
The win broke a season-high four-game losing streak for the Orioles and extended the reeling Phillies' dive to 15 losses in their past 16 games.
As a follow-up to last Wednesday's three-hitter in Milwaukee, Mussina came within three outs of his fourth complete game in his last seven starts. Mussina struck out nine, walked one and allowed six hits. In his last two starts he has 21 strikeouts in 17 innings.
"The thing I feel best about is with all the things that happened last year, I knew I still had the ability to pitch like I used to pitch and be relatively consistent with it," said Mussina, still embarrassed by last season's career-worst 4.81 ERA. "That's gratifying in that the off-season work I did and the spring training work I did has paid off. Things are going better now. But you have to keep working because things can turn bad as quickly as they turned good."
He struck out nine for the fourth time in his last eight starts and was deprived of a fourth complete game only because of high pitch counts in his previous two starts.
Said Orioles manager Davey Johnson: "Moose is intense. He's a competitor and an all-around athlete. He's the total package."
Looking for a National League comparison, pitching coach Ray Miller thought for only a moment before offering, "Maddux."
Strong stuff. On a quest for his first 20-win season, Mussina's consistency and precision now rightfully draw a parallel to a four-time Cy Young Award winner. Mussina has eight straight quality starts and has allowed three runs or less in 14 of his last 17 appearances. Only seven pitchers have reached 100 wins with fewer losses than Mussina's 43. (The Braves' Greg Maddux is not among them.) He now ranks second all-time in winning percentage among pitchers with 100 victories.
Mussina's ERA stands at a season-low 3.14, 1.67 runs lower than last season's 19-win effort. Instead of battling a pitching coach, this season he has embraced the philosophy of Miller, who asks only to pitch quickly, pitch down and pitch with purpose.
"When he came to spring training he had an idea why I struggled last year, simply the fact I didn't get the ball down. We've all done that better," Mussina said.
Twice Mussina escaped jams after allowing consecutive hitters to reach leading off an inning. Both times he helped himself with consecutive strikeouts.
Unlike Sunday, the Orioles didn't reject a handout inning. Facing organizational castoff Calvin Maduro, they punished him for a hit batsman and two third-inning walks.
With one out, Maduro hit Brady Anderson. One of few Orioles hitters to escape last weekend without a dented average, Roberto Alomar followed with the inning's most important at-bat when, with Anderson running, he grounded a single through a vacated hole at shortstop.
Atoning for an 0-for-5 Sunday in which he failed to advance any of six base runners, Geronimo Berroa collected his first RBI as an Oriole when he flared a single to short center field, shattering his bat for a 1-0 lead.
Rafael Palmeiro then walked to load the bases for Ripken, who had struck out looking the inning before. Ripken had homered 10 times in his first 207 at-bats, none in his last 101. That changed on Maduro's second pitch.
Ripken skied what initially looked to Phillies left fielder Gregg Jefferies to be a harmless pop-up. But as he retreated, Jefferies appeared to lose sight of the ball. As the ball floated toward the wall, Jefferies mistimed a leap and the ball plopped atop the wall, bounding deep into the crowd for Ripken's seventh career grand slam. After leading for only four innings in the four-game sweep by the Toronto Blue Jays, the Orioles suddenly found themselves ahead 5-0.
Ripken's 355-foot "blast" fooled Johnson, fooled Phillies manager Terry Francona and may have even fooled the third baseman himself when his fly ball turned huge.
"I thought it was a pop-up," said Johnson.
In the other dugout, Francona shared his view, if not his pleasure.
"I think it was obvious that it was catchable," Francona insisted. "It's a seven-foot wall. I'm not the greatest mathematician, but when you add it all together you should be able to catch it."
Said Jefferies: "It looked like it hit one row back. I just kept going back and made a couple of steps then leaped. It just went over my glove."
Such is life with the Phillies, whose act has long since grown tired. They rank last in the majors in hitting, last in the National League in fielding and 13th in league in pitching. Francona once managed an outfielder named Michael Jordan in Birmingham. Jordan might bat cleanup for this bunch.