On a night when they received a start from Mike Mussina, a lead from Albert Belle and six runs from an accelerating offense, the Orioles were only reminded by the Texas Rangers why their chances of creating wild-card suspense are remote.
The American League's team of the moment, the Rangers transformed a rare dull effort by Mussina into an early five-run lead and hung on for an 8-6 win before an expectant but ultimately disappointed crowd of 42,949 at Camden Yards.
Anticipating career home run No. 400, a thousand flashes greeted each pitch to Cal Ripken, hoping to freeze a moment that seemed impossibly distant in April but now teases with its inevitability.
As the 45-54 Orioles' six-game winning streak stopped, the inevitability of trades before Saturday night's waiver deadline also grew.
"The guys are still battling. We haven't quit. I'm very proud of that," said manager Ray Miller. "We've been on a good run. I know we're not going to win every game, but I think everybody feels we have a chance to win every game."
Ripken grounded to short to begin the second inning. In the fourth, with runners at first and second, Ripken drove a pitch back at Rangers starter Aaron Sele, who reacted reflexively to save himself and wound up with a catch and throw for an inning-ending double play. Ripken returned in the sixth inning with his pursuit of 400 career home runs the game's primary suspense. He reached when third baseman Todd Zeile botched his grounder and returned in the eighth to walk.
Belle's home run and Brady Anderson's first two homers since June 20 weren't enough. Despite the Toronto Blue Jays' loss, the Orioles front office was shoved another half-step toward hard decisions.
The Orioles had the misfortune of seeing the only club hotter than themselves. The Rangers' nine-game win streak matches the second-longest in franchise history and matches the longest in the American League this season. They got there, in part, with a good-enough start by Sele (10-6), a rare home run by last-minute starter Luis Alicea, and three runs derived from an error and a rough encounter between Belle and the right-field wall.
Mussina (13-5) also experienced one of his two worst starts this season as five Orioles pitchers surrendered 14 hits, four by former Oriole Todd Zeile.
Combined with Sidney Ponson's four-inning no-decision Sunday, Mussina's outing completed the Orioles' first back-to-back starts of less than five innings since May 29-June 1.
"I've seen Moose when he was unhittable," said Rangers manager Johnny Oates. "I think it looked like he had trouble locating his knuckle-curve. That's a tough pitch to judge whether it's in the strike zone or not and we laid off it and made him bring it up. The ones above the belt we were able to hit."
"It was just bad pitching," said Mussina, who allowed 11 hits (equaling his season high), four for extra bases, in 4 2/3 innings. "I had trouble throwing strikes and I got behind on just about everybody. And when I did get ahead of somebody, I gave them a pitch they could hit. I didn't even give us a chance."
Given a 2-0 lead thanks to Belle's first-inning homer -- the right fielder's fourth in five at-bats and seventh in 10 games -- Mussina consistently struggled to get ahead of hitters. Falling into predictable counts, he was hurt by four RBIs by No. 8 hitter Alicea and No. 9 hitter Royce Clayton, who chased him with a two-out double in the fifth inning.
Denied his fifth win this month, Mussina absorbed his first loss since June 24. The sensation stung.
"We're just trying to win games," Mussina said. "We were playing pretty well. We came back the other day and won a game. The guys got a lead for me today and I didn't pitch well enough to hang onto it and got them pretty far behind. The guys tried to come back. It didn't work out."
Mussina was hardly at his efficient best. Neither was his defense. Second baseman Delino DeShields' third-inning error led to an unearned run and inning after Belle couldn't find the wall on Rusty Greer's two-out, two-run double. Belle leaped but the ball hit behind him below the scoreboard. Belle later compensated by cutting down a run at the plate; however, Greer's double gave the Rangers a 4-2 lead they never surrendered.
"For the most part, Albert's done fairly good out there. He's hitting the ball and that's what he's here for. He makes most of the routine plays; I wouldn't call that one routine," Miller said.
As the front office and majority owner Peter Angelos sort out whether to call it a season and trade pending free agents for future help, a veteran clubhouse remains defiant.
"Maybe they're trying to determine whether they should be adding some players," said Anderson, who had four RBIs. "When you look at this team objectively, there are always spots where you think you can improve yourself. But you don't take the things that are good you don't take the positive parts of the team and break it up."