CHICAGO -- The defining moment of yesterday's 8-4 win, which is to say the defining moment of the Orioles' successful four-game series against the Chicago White Sox, fell upon Harold Baines in the third inning against James Baldwin.
Baines would later homer and double to cap a three-hit day, but with the Orioles leading 2-1, he illustrated how the Orioles have transformed themselves from an inopportunistic offense and halting starting rotation into the American League's team of the moment.
With the bases loaded, Baldwin started Baines with consecutive strikes. Baines left the batter's box to regroup and returned to take an inside pitch for a ball.
Pitching like someone who would surrender five walks and seven earned runs in five innings, Baldwin bounced his next pitch, a curve, by catcher Brook Fordyce to allow Brady Anderson to score. On Baldwin's next pitch, Baines looped a two-run single over a drawn-in infield to center field, scoring B. J. Surhoff and Albert Belle.
Three pitches after feeling Baldwin's foot on his neck, Baines staked the Orioles to a 5-1 lead that would hold up for their 10th win in 11 games.
"He threw me two [tough] curveballs, wasted a fastball in, then he overthrew a curveball," Baines said. "He got the fastball in, but I was strong enough to get it over the infield. If they were playing regular depth, it might have been a different story."
Different story, indeed. One month ago, they were the goofy-foot team incapable of winning except on days when Mike Mussina pitched or the stop-and-start offense broke out for double-digit runs.
Now look at them. Since descending to 4-14 April 25, the Orioles are 27-23. The 31-37 Orioles are winning close, winning late and, most importantly, winning often.
"A lot of guys in this lineup have played this game a long time," Baines said. "We're all going to struggle. You just hope we don't struggle at the same time. It's part of the game. When you have everybody swinging the bat well at the same time, it's impressive to watch."
The Orioles' stated goal of reaching .500 by the All-Star break now appears attainable. An offense that scratched for an embarrassing .250 average in April punished the White Sox with 11 home runs, including 10 in their three wins. Surhoff, Anderson, Baines and Belle produced the Orioles' second four-homer game in as many days. The Orioles now rank among the league's top three offenses and wonder what they might resemble if Belle ever grows into his reputation.
"I think right now it's a case of Baltimore swinging the bats well and it doesn't matter who's out there pitching. They're a hot club," said White Sox manager Jerry Manuel. "They've got a number of hitters who can carry a club, and if they all get hot, they're tough to stop. It's tough to compete when players of that caliber get hot."
Baines owns 19 RBIs in his past 18 games. Surhoff's two-run first-inning home run extended his career-high hitting streak to 21 games, during which he has nine home runs and 20 RBIs. New York Yankees manager Joe Torre has even whispered Surhoff's name as an All-Star choice.
Cal Ripken's two hits yesterday dropped his average to .420 over his past 19 games. Belle is gradually emerging from his early-season funk and is hitting .302 in his past 34 games. Yesterday's home run was his third in six games after enduring a drought of 24 games. First baseman Will Clark has 11 RBIs in his past 11 games.
"We're getting production from pretty much everybody," Clark said. "As a collective offense, we've been putting a bunch of runs up on the board. And we've been doing it pretty much every day."
By winning their third game in four days over the White Sox, the Orioles emerged from the most hellish stretch of their schedule by winning seven of their last eight road games, their last three one-run decisions and their third consecutive series.
Having played 27 of their last 41 on the road, the Orioles now play host to the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for six games in the most important homestand of the first half.
"We have got a ways to go yet, but we feel good about our club," said manager Ray Miller.
"We've been in a position to win. We were in a position to win all three of those games in Florida. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do it," said Surhoff, referring to a 1-2 series against the Marlins that began their tear.
"We've gotten solid pitching. We've swung the bats very, very well. But I know there will be a day when we run into a guy who doesn't give us very much. You have to win those, too."
Yesterday's decision fell to fifth starter Jason Johnson (1-1), who lasted 5 2/3 innings for his first win with the Orioles before Doug Johns and Mike Timlin followed with 3 1/3 shutout innings.
"It's a lot more alive in the clubhouse," said Johnson. "You can see it's a lot more relaxed now. We were uptight two weeks ago because of the way we were playing and we were losing a lot."