Until last Sunday, Brian Barber had gone nearly three years since his last major-league win. Until there were two outs in last night's seventh inning the Kansas City Royals' anonymous rookie pitcher teased a Camden Yards crowd with a no-hitter.
Barber became the latest arm to punish the beaten down Orioles last night, eventually allowing two hits in seven-plus innings as the Royals took a 2-1 decision before 48,154.
Barber, recalled from Triple-A on Aug. 19, entered the game with a 10.13 ERA but looked for a while like he might leave with a piece of history. He instead settled for sending the Orioles to their sixth straight loss and eighth in nine games.
Exhibiting little fear of a slumping lineup filled with big names and nagging injuries, Barber (2-1) constantly pitched ahead, forcing the Orioles to swing early and often. His reward was out-dueling Orioles starter Mike Mussina (12-8), who pitched six innings on short rest and left trailing 2-0.
Manager Ray Miller saw his fatigued team tumble to 69-66 and out of third place in the American League East. How many days till October?
"He didn't give us much chance to take a pitch because he threw strike one all night and came right at us," Miller said. "It's kind of a tough road ahead of us. I think we're a little physically beat up and a little emotionally spent from going on such a great run for such a long time."
Mussina allowed single runs in the second and third innings. Little could he know the misdemeanors doomed him.
Barber allowed only one runner through five innings and escaped hits when Chris Hoiles and Rich Becker lined pitches inches wide of the foul lines. Barber struck out only two and needed just 58 pitches to clear six innings.
"I was really just trying to win the game. It was 2-0 at that point so it was easy to keep my mind off the hit situation," Barber said.
As teammates retreated from him for fear of jinxing his masterpiece, a stadium extra unknowingly broke the code. "There was a security guard. He didn't seem to know what was really going on. He kept asking me questions about the game. Once he asked me, 'When do you start thinking about it?' I told him I didn't know. I've never thrown one before."
Barber, a rookie whose major-league career has spanned four years and two organizations, held the Orioles hitless for 6 2/3 innings before Cal Ripken broke the indignity with a lined double.
"He hit a bad pitch. He did what he was supposed to do," Barber said. "I wish I had thrown a different pitch."
The Orioles began the second half by hitting .305 and averaging more than six runs through 38 games. But an offensive decline that started on Aug. 20 against Tampa Bay has evolved into a nine-game slump in which they have hit only .208 and scored 31 runs.
After the loss Miller spoke openly of sitting left fielder B. J. Surhoff for the first time this year. The Orioles' most consistent hitter for much of the season is hitting only .196 since July 26.
Rafael Palmeiro continues to battle a serious sinus condition. Willie Greene is dealing with sinuses and a muscle pull aggravated Friday. Eric Davis, who personified the Orioles' tear with a club-record 30-game hitting streak, did not play for the second straight game because of painful hamstrings. Brady Anderson will likely rest his sore right knee today. The condition already causes him to play a shallow center field because of the pain brought by charging then stopping.
"Obviously, we're beat up. There's no doubt about that," Miller said. "That's why this is a grind and why you have to push yourself. I'd like to give somebody a day off and I probably will tomorrow."
Realists, a veteran clubhouse no longer concerns itself about playoffs. Not only have they fallen behind Texas in the overstated wild-card chase, they returned to fourth place in the AL East last night behind Toronto.
They're also only a half-game shy of falling 30 games out of first place for the first time since the end of the '88 season.
"There are people playing as short as we are. That's really no excuse," Surhoff said. "You can't worry about what you can't control and we can't control that."
For seven innings the Orioles could not control Barber, whose two earlier starts covered only eight innings. Formerly a power pitcher whom the St. Louis Cardinals selected in the first round of the '91 amateur draft, Barber has experienced Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and remade himself as a pitcher. Once known for power, he contained the Orioles with a two-pitch assortment of fastballs and changeups.
"He went from a guy who throws 96, 97 [mph] to a guy who's had an arm injury and is just learning how to pitch," Royals manager Tony Muser said.