The Orioles ran onto the field last night, their theme song blared over the public address system, and a city fought to stifle a yawn.
Capturing the hearts of their fans, or at least getting them out of the house, apparently will require more than a battle for third place.
With little at stake and few people in the stands, the Orioles were shut out for the 14th time this season, losing to the Toronto Blue Jays, 2-0, before an announced crowd of 20,279 at Camden Yards. It was the lowest paid attendance in the ballpark's 11-year history, surpassing by 1,168 the previous record low in an Aug. 22 makeup game against Tampa Bay.
Three straight two-out hits off Sidney Ponson, the last by rookie Josh Phelps, broke a scoreless tie in the sixth, and Phelps homered in the ninth to move the Blue Jays 2 1/2 games ahead of the Orioles in the American League East. Pete Walker (9-4) held the Orioles to four hits over seven innings while outdueling Ponson (7-7), who went the distance for the second time in a week.
Not that many people noticed.
The upper deck was mostly vacant, and entire rows of seats were exposed in the lower section. The number 19 was illuminated on the scoreboard in right field, a tribute to John Unitas, not the turnstile count.
Perhaps the Orioles couldn't compete with the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football, or the observance of Yom Kippur.
Whatever the reason, the Orioles got the cold shoulder rather than a warm embrace upon returning home from a seven-game road trip. Taking two of three at Fenway Park over the weekend still left them with 19 losses in their previous 22 games.
"You'd like to have more people here, but I understand," right fielder Jay Gibbons said. "We haven't exactly been tearing it up."
Never a serious playoff contender, the Orioles gladly would have settled for a winning record. They took aim in spring training, only to have the target move about three weeks ago.
All that's left is the satisfaction of escaping fourth place, where they've finished the past four seasons. They can do no better than 79-83, and that would require a 13-0 conclusion. Six games remain with Toronto, which passed the Orioles for third last week, so neither team will back into it.
Manager Mike Hargrove is keeping the race in perspective. He knows the drama doesn't match a late October night at Yankee Stadium, but it will suffice until his club can extend its reach beyond the division's midsection.
"I certainly think that everybody has measuring sticks and that's one of those," Hargrove said. "We'd like to finish third if we could. I don't think it's the end-all, be-all, but we certainly would like to do that because it means we're playing well and we'd like to finish the season on a good note."
It's become a goal for Ponson, who had won three of his past four decisions before last night. Ponson settled for a complete-game loss in New York in his previous start, and hasn't allowed more than two earned runs in his past five outings.
"If Sidney pitches the rest of his career and gives up two runs and throws complete games, he's going to do a lot of good," Hargrove said. "I think Sidney's just scratching the surface of what he's capable of doing."
Facing the Blue Jays for the first time this season, Ponson blanked them on one hit through four innings. Carlos Delgado was the only batter to reach against him, with a leadoff single in the second inning and a two-out walk in the fourth.
"It's one of those things where I'm throwing the ball real good right now, and I don't know how long it's going to last. I might get my [butt] handed back to me my next outing," said Ponson, who was making his third start since coming off the disabled list. "You keep working hard, keep going out there, and hopefully I'll keep pitching good like this."
The Orioles' first serious threat came in the fifth inning against Walker, who beat them in the opener of an Aug. 24 doubleheader to begin their 10-game losing streak. Melvin Mora led off with a single and was sacrificed to second by Geronimo Gil. A passed ball moved him to third with one out, but Walker kept the ball in the infield while retiring the next two batters.
Vernon Wells ended an 0-for-26 streak with a two-out single in the sixth inning, and Delgado grounded a single to center to put the tie-breaking run at third. Phelps scalded the next pitch down the third base line, and the ball deflected off Tony Batista's glove before rolling into shallow left field for a 1-0 lead.
Ponson escaped a jam in the fifth by catching a liner from Ken Huckaby and throwing to first to complete a double play and strand Jose Cruz.
Walker slithered out of a tough spot in the seventh by getting pinch hitter Luis Lopez to ground into a double play after a leadoff walk to Gibbons and one-out single by Mora, who returned from a three-day suspension.
Opponent:Toronto Blue Jays
TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters:Blue Jays' Justin Miller (7-4, 5.44) vs. Orioles' John Stephens (1-4, 6.00)