With the pursuit of a division title or hopes of joining the wild-card chase long ago removed from their itinerary, the Orioles are reduced to tinkering with their lineups and scuffling to avoid last place and the worst record in the American League.
Only the bullpen and two well-placed bunts stood between them and both indignities last night.
Coming off a 4-1 defeat to Tampa Bay in the first game of a makeup doubleheader, the Orioles salvaged a split by getting seven shutout innings from Mike Mussina and scoring twice in the eighth for a 2-0 victory over the Devil Rays at Camden Yards that held both teams in their respective places.
Another loss would have left the Orioles alone in the AL east basement for the first time since Opening Day. Instead, they used a leadoff single by Mike Kinkade in the eighth, a throwing error by reliever Cory Lidle and a suicide squeeze bunt from Jerry Hairston to provide the go-ahead run in Game 2.
Pinch-runner Trenidad Hubbard raced home as Lidle flipped the ball to first, completing Hairston's fifth RBI in the last two nights. Melvin Mora singled in Luis Matos, whose sacrifice bunt was thrown away by Lidle. Mike Trombley struck out the side in the ninth for his fourth save after Buddy Groom (6-3) had survived two eighth-inning walks to pickup the win.
"All I want is to get it down because [Hubbard] was coming," Hairston said of the bunt. "If I get it down, we score.
Forced into premature exits his last two starts by the flu and a callus on his thumb, Mussina held the Devil Rays to four singles and struck out eight while extending his streak without allowing an earned run to 16 innings. He out-lasted Paul Wilson, the former No. 1 draft pick who was removed alter six innings in his first major-league start since September 1996. Wilson allowed only three hits, all singles.
The Orioles have split 11 of their last 12 doubleheaders dating back to 1997, including all three this season when they've recovered from losses in the opening game. They couldn't deliver a win for Sidney Ponson or Mussina, who I hasn't strung together consecutive wins since June.
Mussina again ran into a health issue last night, leaving after 100 pitches because of tightness in his groin. "The mound was a little slick and we took him out as a preventative measure, to keep him strong," Hargrove said. "I don't anticipate, and he doesn't anticipate, him missing his next start."
Said Mussina: "I told him my leg was getting a little tight and he said there obviously was no need to do anything crazy with the situation we're in. It was a good time. I just wish I had been able to go one more inning."
Ponson was trying to put together consecutive wins for the first time since mid-April. He gave the Orioles their 10th complete game, second in the league to Toronto's 12, while failing to walk a batter for the only time this season. But three mistakes, two of his own and one from left fielder-in-training Delino DeShields, conspired against him.
Greg Vaughn and Fred McGriff took him deep, running Ponson's home run total to 26 in as many starts covering 174 1/3 innings and tying Mussina for the club lead. Vaughn's two-run shot in the sixth broke a 1 - 1 tie. McGriff also jumped on the first pitch, homering in the ninth inning to give closer Roberto Hernandez a three-run cushion.
"I thought he threw great," said Greg Myers, after catching Ponson's fourth complete game. "He had a good fastball, with good life on it, and he was getting his breaking ball over."
By reaching the Orioles' bull-pen with his 395-foot blast, McGriff tied Mark McGwire's record of homering in 37 major-league ball-parks. The pitch was acceptable, a two-seamer down in the Zone that Ponson didn't question But he also hung a slider to Miguel Cairo, who punched a single into left field before Vaughn crushed a fastban that Ponson left over the plate while trying to come inside.
Also proving costly was a lead-off double by McGriff in the second inning. DeShields, making his eighth start in left, was slow getting back on the ball before it bounced on the warning track. A two-out single by John Flaherty gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead.
DeShields, who had looked pretty comfortable in the outfield before yesterday, also misplayed a ball in the second inning of Game 2 that went for an error. It became inconsequential when Mussina struck out the next two batters and snagged a one-hopper from Ozzie Guillen.
The Orioles' only run in Game 1 was provided by Myers, who singled with two outs in the fifth after a double by rookie Chris Richard. It was the sixth RBI for Myers this season, his first since Game 2 of a July 29 doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards.
Devil Rays starter Tanyon Sturtze lasted only two innings because of a strained rib cage muscle. His replacement Dave Eiland limited the Orioles to five hits in 4 1/3 innings while picking up his first career win as a reliever.