The Orioles hated to see the Kansas City Royals leave town yesterday because beating the same team seven straight times had done wonders for their confidence. Then again, people can take only so much abuse.
It had been 21 years since the Orioles last swept an entire season series against an American League team, and the grand finale included one last Royals collapse.
Wasting chance after chance, the Orioles trailed until the sixth inning, when Jeff Conine hit a two-run homer to tie the score, and Mike Bordick's run-scoring single gave them the lead.
Then, the Orioles turned things over to their dominating bullpen, which stranded four base runners to preserve the 3-2 win before 39,348 at Camden Yards.
"This club showed a lot of resilience today," said manager Mike Hargrove after his team climbed a game over .500 and within 1 1/2 games of the second-place New York Yankees in the American League East. "When you burn as many runs as we did at third base today, most of the time you don't win those ballgames. Today, we persevered."
In sweeping three games at Kansas City two weekends ago, and then taking all four games at Camden Yards, the Orioles outscored the Royals, 55-16.
This marked the fourth time in franchise history the Orioles swept a season series against an AL team, with the others coming against Minnesota in 1981, Oakland in 1978 and friendly old Kansas City in 1970.
The Orioles won't exactly commemorate this one in their trophy case; the Royals have the worst record in baseball at 8-21, and have lost 17 of their past 21 games. But there was something satisfying for the Orioles about how yesterday's game played out.
Sitting in the dugout with his team trailing most of the afternoon, Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine said it just felt different.
"When we look up there, and we're a couple runs down, now we look at that as no big deal," Conine said. "We know we can put some runs on the board and come back, whereas before it was a here-we-go-again-type feeling. That's a big change from what it was the beginning of the year, especially with the way our bullpen's been throwing."
Calvin Maduro (2-3) looked like he was on his way to another hard-luck loss. His three defeats all came against the Boston Red Sox, and in those games, the Orioles scored a total of one run.
Michael Tucker hit a first-inning home run, and that was the only earned run Maduro allowed in 6 1/3 innings. The Royals took a 2-0 lead in the sixth, when Chuck Knoblauch scored on a passed ball by Orioles catcher Brook Fordyce.
At that point, the Orioles were 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. They put runners on second and third with no outs in the first inning, and Royals rookie Chris George (0-3) escaped unharmed.
"I knew we were going to hit, I just didn't know which inning it was going to happen," Maduro said. "But I knew we were going to score some runs."
The Orioles rewarded Maduro for his faith. Gary Matthews legged out an infield hit to start the sixth, and Conine followed with a home run into the center-field seats. Conine battled George through a nine-pitch at-bat, fouling him off four times before crushing a high fastball.
With one out, Marty Cordova kept the momentum going with a two-strike single. Cordova, the rare power hitter who often chokes up with two strikes, is hitting .333 (15-for-45) in those situations this year.
Still, it looked like the Royals might get out of the inning, as Jay Gibbons followed with a potential double-play ball to second baseman Carlos Febles. But Febles bobbled the ball as he tried throwing it to shortstop Neifi Perez, and Cordova's hustle forced Febles to take the single out at first.
Next came Bordick, who entered the game batting .153 but finished with three hits, including this looping liner to left-center field, which scored Cordova with the go-ahead run.
At that point, the Orioles had the feeling they couldn't lose. Not with a bullpen that is now 4-1 with a 3.59 ERA. Take away the franchise-record 10 runs in relief allowed by Josh Towers on Wednesday night, and that ERA shrinks to 2.77.
"Their stuff is otherworldly right now," Conine said. "It's fun to watch them get out there and throw the ball. Playing first base, I get to hear the comments of all the guys coming down there, and they tell me how good their stuff is."
Rick Bauer took over for Maduro with two runners on in the seventh inning and struck out Febles and Knoblauch, both looking. The Royals put runners on the corners with two outs in the eighth, so Bauer gave way to Buddy Groom, who struck out Raul Ibanez looking.
Last but not least, Jorge Julio breezed through the ninth with two strikeouts and a groundout, to earn his sixth save.
"We're catching onto the idea," Groom said, "that if we throw strikes and get ahead, good things will happen."
Especially against Kansas City.
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Indians' Ryan Drese (2-3, 7.09) vs. Orioles' Sean Douglass (0-1, 9.45)