A mystery starting pitcher. Jeff Conine homering twice while playing third base for the first time in his career. Harold Baines tripling for the first time since the first Clinton administration. Relief pitcher Ricky Bones scoring the winning run after the Orioles rallied from a four-run deficit.
Yet out of the Orioles' 9-5, 10-inning win over the Chicago White Sox last night at Camden Yards, perhaps nothing was more significant than their stacking one win behind another. For the first time in 38 games, or since last Sept. 13-14, the Orioles own a winning streak.
Held out of the game until the ninth inning, Baines stepped forward in time to jolt the evening with a one-out grand slam off Sox manager Jerry Manuel's sixth pitcher, David Lundquist. The home run fell in the Orioles' bullpen and energized a crowd of 37,846, which for the first time this season embraced a team better known for falling down than getting to its feet. The win lifted the Orioles to 8-17 and moved manager Ray Miller to spread his arms in celebration behind home plate.
"It was fun to watch," Miller said. "I had forgotten what it felt like."
The Orioles capitalized on an error to generate two unearned runs in the ninth to tie it 5-5, the second on emergency third baseman Jeff Conine's two-out single. Without Conine's two bases-empty home runs in the fourth and sixth innings off starter Mike Sirotka, Baines would never have received his stage.
The uncommon win followed the surprise replacement of scheduled starting pitcher Juan Guzman with Scott Erickson, who was followed by three innings of hitless relief and a win for Mike Timlin (1-1).
Erickson did not receive his first win but did get through seven innings. After quickly falling behind 4-0 he stiffened and for the first time this season left with a positive outlook.
"You don't quit. You owe it to everybody on the team to give the best you can," he said. "You can go in the tank or be a baby about it or try to rebound and leave the park with a good feeling. We came back to win it so it was worthwhile."
Miller had decided to toggle his rotation after Juan Guzman's troubled 3 1/3-inning start last Wednesday against Kansas City. Guzman, lost since spring training, complained afterward about his misplaced mechanics. Miller offered Guzman the chance for additional side work. Instead of throwing once between starts, Guzman used Sunday for a second side session. Erickson wasn't announced until last night.
Always a tough team for Erickson, the White Sox jumped him for three first-inning runs beginning with Ray Durham's leadoff home run. The Sox resurrected the rally with two outs when designated hitter Magglio Ordonez singled and stole second base, inviting a walk of third baseman Greg Norton, who entered with 11 RBIs in 33 career at-bats vs. the Orioles. First baseman Paul Konerko scored Ordonez with a single, and Norton scored the inning's third run on Chris Singleton's infield hit.
"From that point on, he started letting the ball go," Miller said. "It has nothing to do with courage. There's no more fearsome guy than Scotty in the world. But when you get in these things, you think so much. You're pressing so much to get the ball in the right place and throw the right pitch you forget to throw the ball."
"He let me go tonight," Erickson said. "I've been fighting myself so bad the last few starts it's been a strain just to get to 60 pitches. Tonight I threw the ball like I'm supposed to."
Conine and left fielder B. J. Surhoff contributed three hits apiece. Baines finished with five RBIs after pinch-hitting for DH Rich Amaral in the ninth.
Buffeted by poor pitching and an inability to create their own breaks, the Orioles received a week's worth of good fortune after falling behind 5-1 in the fifth inning. The White Sox committed three errors and a crucial misplay of Baines' ninth-inning drive to center field. Lundquist loaded the bases in the 10th without surrendering a hit. With one out, Baines crushed a pitch that carried more than 410 feet.
"It was a great win and you hope you gain some momentum," said Baines. "Everybody played their butts off. And we got some breaks. You need the breaks when you play like we have. You hope it's the start of something."
"It's not that nobody's trying," said Miller. "Everybody's trying to be so perfect. You save a run here, save a run there, and our guys get something going. A couple things like this happen and you start to believe in yourself."
The win also brought Miller a respite from relentless speculation about his job security and his team's desire. He also sidestepped second-guessing after inserting Conine at third base in the ninth.
Conine hadn't played the position since high school and admitted, "It raised some eyebrows." He did not receive a fielding chance.
Miller's refusal to commit Baines too early became his hole card as Manuel burned his bullpen behind Sirotka's credible start.