What only six days before had been considered a potential rallying point for a slow-starting season completed its transformation into an early summer dirge yesterday.
Replaying the hurtful combination of sluggish offense and an incendiary bullpen, the fourth-place Orioles fell, 6-2, to the New York Yankees before a split crowd of 48,020 at Camden Yards.
Before the loss was done, Orioles fans fled Camden Yards by the hundreds, virtually turning the place into Yankee Stadium South. Rows of unoccupied green plastic made a statement about what had been hyped as a turnaround homestand.
It ain't happening.
As Yankees fans danced in their scalped box seats to celebrate Bernie Williams' two home runs, the Orioles suffered their fifth consecutive loss, returning to 10 games below .500 (32-42) and fading to 13 1/2 games behind the first-place Yankees.
Only last Wednesday they battled the Boston Red Sox hoping to pull within 6 1/2 games of the wild-card lead. Heading into this afternoon's unpopular exhibition in Rochester, N.Y., they have faded to 11 1/2 games behind the Red Sox.
Whatever illusion the club had of upsetting the division's balance of power was dashed by a homestand in which they often played decently but rarely while ahead.
"We're back to where we were before," said left fielder B. J. Surhoff, who contributed two of the Orioles' seven hits, lifting his batting average to .341. "A few big hits if we could hold them that's what we needed. It seems like these guys got the hits that counted."
Less than a week after boasting of an 11-1 stretch, whatever hopes the Orioles held of challenging .500 by the All-Star Game are almost mathematically gone. They still have 13 games left before the break, 10 against division opposition, only three at home.
Most damning of all, the Orioles fell to 4-17 within the AL East. No other team in either league has won so few games within its division.
"These games in the division are very important. You have to win your share," said catcher Charles Johnson. "That makes this especially disappointing. When you play outside your division, it seems like it's twice as hard to make up ground."
Clearly agitated, manager Ray Miller vented at his bullpen, which yesterday consisted of co-closer Arthur Rhodes. Summoned to hold a 3-2 game, he allowed a big inning for the second consecutive day as the Yankees handed closer Mariano Rivera a four-run cushion in the ninth.
"If you boil this up to the biggest series of the year and what happened happens, you're totally destroyed. The bottom line is you have to win ballgames. It doesn't matter if it's the Yankees or Oakland or Toronto," Miller said. "The idea is you go out and try to win today. The only problem I'm having right now is trying to get some sort of sequence out of the bullpen. That's the one problem.
"You can't duck three or four people. You've got to use everybody, and somebody has got to start doing the job."
The Orioles haven't won consecutive games against division foes this season, enduring skids of three, three, six and five games.
During Miller's tenure they are 23-46 within their division and have won more than two consecutive games against their rivals only once. This isn't a power struggle; it's unilateral disarmament.
Miller's criticism of his porous bullpen is warranted even if overstated. Orioles relievers surrendered 11 earned runs in 12 1/3 innings (8.03 ERA) during the homestand.
Rhodes allowed five runs (four earned) in 2 1/3 innings the last two games. Discounting Mike Mussina's crushing complete-game, 10-strikeout loss Thursday, the 'pen escaped only one game unscathed.
Yet, the Orioles led the Yankees for only one-half inning -- Friday's home seventh after they overcame Scott Erickson's traumatic, 5 1/3-inning start for an 8-7 lead. They also trailed in two of the three games this weekend before coming to bat.
Yesterday, Williams homered off starter Sidney Ponson (7-5) with one out in the first and Shane Spencer provided a 2-0 lead on a looping, bases-loaded flare that Albert Belle turned into an unusual right field-to-shortstop fielder's choice.
As much as Miller has praised his resurgent offense, it deserted him in early innings this homestand. Against Red Sox and Yankee starting pitching, the Orioles managed only nine runs in 39 innings, a 2.08 ERA.
Pat Rapp, Mark Portugal and Hideki Irabu were among those faced. Bret Saberhagen beat them for his first win since April 13.
Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez (9-6) took his turn yesterday and lasted 7 1/3 innings. The Orioles scored in the first and third innings after Brady Anderson led off with a walk and a single. But after seven of their first 15 hitters reached, the Orioles placed only four of their next 22 on base.
Home runs have represented Ponson's kryptonite. Williams' bases-empty blasts means that the 22-year-old has surrendered home runs -- 14 total -- in eight of his past 10 starts. Williams' first-inning shot came on a 1-2 count, rubbing at a raw nerve with Miller.