The concept of being a spoiler, of emerging as the team that alters a wild-card race or influences who wins a division, sounds enticing until someone like Oakland's Jason Giambi picks up a bat or Mark Mulder releases another pitch. That's when it becomes clearer what the Orioles are missing by again having to settle for such a role, and how humbling it can become.
Giambi didn't miss much last night, at least when given the chance. He hit a long home run and reached base five times in a 6-2 victory over the Orioles before 31,048 that increased the Athletics' wild-card lead and raised more concerns about pitcher Sidney Ponson.
Oakland left-hander Mul- der improved to 16-7 by tying up the Orioles after the first inning, when they scored two runs. Giambi added a single and walk against Ponson, who came out after the fourth with a strained forearm muscle, and walked twice against relievers John Wasdin and Jorge Julio.
Four of the first seven Orioles had hits off Mulder, but none after that, with walks to Jeff Conine and Melvin Mora providing the only base runners until the eighth. Conine's two-run single had put them ahead, but the lineup again fell silent. The Orioles didn't get another hit after a leadoff single by Luis Matos in the second inning. They haven't scored in 34 of their last 36 innings, producing only three runs in four games.
Mulder issued three walks, the last to Jerry Hairston leading off the eighth. He retired 19 of the last 22 batters before Mike Magnante replaced him to open the ninth.
"He settled in and started throwing strikes, especially with his breaking ball," manager Mike Hargrove said. "He got a lot of big outs on 3-1, 3-2, 2-0 counts with his off-speed stuff."
"It looked like we were going to get to him early, but he shut us down," Conine said. "He made a few mistakes the first inning that he didn't make the rest of the game. He was mixing up his pitches real well, throwing in and out, a lot of off-speed pitches. That's what he's good at, keeping you off-balance."
This is supposed to be the Orioles' "mini-playoffs," the description given by Hairston for a succession of games in the last five weeks against playoff contenders. It's a chance for everyone, as reliever B.J. Ryan sees it, to get "a little bit more pep in their step."
Or it could give the A's - baseball's most prolific team since the All-Star break at 32-13 - the opportunity to bury Boston. They lead the Red Sox by four games, with five more remaining against the Orioles this season.
Looking at a schedule that also includes six games against the Seattle Mariners, Hargrove said, "The situation we find ourselves in right now is we've got a lot of young kids who need to play. We need to look at them to finish off our evaluations going into the winter. But I don't know if there should be any added incentive to playing Oakland as opposed to Tampa Bay. You still want to play the game with the amount of effort, mental and physical, that you would against any other team.
"Sure, there's a little more excitement. Naturally there would be because they are in contention for the wild-card spot. But I don't know that's going to make us play any harder than we have. We've played hard since Day 1."
Once rosters expand on Saturday, pressure could mount for Hargrove to continue playing his veterans rather than field a more inexperienced lineup and hurt the chances of another team trying to make the playoffs. Or what constitutes veterans inside his clubhouse.
When he was told that managers have taken heat for playing six rookies, Hargrove said, "They better not criticize me for playing six rookies. That's about all we've got.
"It's your responsibility to put a competitive team on the field, one that will have a chance to beat the other team," he added. "But that doesn't really change our situation one way or the other, whether we expand our roster or not. We're still going to put young people on the field. That's just the way it is."
At age 24, Ponson still qualifies as young. It's only his failures that have grown old.
The Orioles gave him another lead last night, which in the past has been as safe as a 3 a.m. stroll through Central Park. He's lost leads of six runs and four runs (twice) this season, contributing to a stretch of 10 consecutive starts without a win.
Ahead 2-0 after the first inning last night, Ponson allowed four of the first five batters to reach in the third. Ramon Hernandez led off with a double and scored on a one-out single by Johnny Damon. A single and walk loaded the bases, and Jermaine Dye singled into left field to tie the game.
Ponson got the next two outs without permitting another run. But Oakland took a 4-2 lead in the fourth when Terrence Long singled and Hernandez homered off the right-field foul pole.