The Orioles didn't just hold a baseball game at Camden Yards last night, they held their own version of a town meeting - a town meeting in orange floppy hats.
How do the fans feel about Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan's first six months in the front office? A crowd of 42,488, the biggest since Opening Day, turned out and gave them a pretty good idea.
Beattie and Flanagan's three signature acquisitions to date - Omar Daal, Deivi Cruz and Adam Loewen - were all on display, as the Orioles pounded the Texas Rangers, 8-1, for their seventh win in nine games.
So it was a festive night, and the Orioles appreciated their big crowd, even though it took three promotions to bring them to the ballpark: post-game fireworks, floppy hats and $5 student discount night.
"We feed off of that," Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons said. "It's so much nicer when the stands are filled."
The fans seemed to give a collective yawn when the Orioles introduced Loewen during the third inning. Last year's first-round draft pick, Loewen became the new cornerstone of the team's rebuilding effort when he agreed to a five-year, $4.02 million contract shortly before Monday's deadline.
But it was a late-arriving crowd. On a gorgeous evening, with a game-time temperature of 85 degrees, the walk-up sales were a Camden Yards record: 8,130.
The atmosphere was rather stale as the Orioles built a 5-0 lead against Rangers starter John Thomson (3-6) by the third inning, strengthened by Jeff Conine's two-run homer in the third.
But the seats kept filling, and by the late innings, it started to feel like 1997 revisited. When David Segui hit a three-run double with two outs in the seventh, the whole place was on its feet.
Against Texas, a four-run lead never seems safe, so Orioles manager Mike Hargrove heaved a sigh of relief.
"The Rangers," he said, "they're scary, one through nine [in the batting order]."
The Orioles have enjoyed an offensive awakening over the past 11 games, averaging 7.6 runs on 12.8 hits. Over that stretch, they've raised their team batting average from .251 to .273.
Confidence is riding high, but quietly the players admit they've seen a lower grade of pitching than they did earlier in the year.
In the 11 games, they've seen seven different pitchers: Joe Kennedy, Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele (twice), Ramon Ortiz (twice), Ismael Valdes (twice), Thomson (twice) and Joaquin Benoit.
Adding their season totals together, that group entered last night 21-22 with a 5.66 ERA. It's been a definite reprieve for an Orioles offense that has faced Pedro Martinez, Bartolo Colon and Esteban Loaiza twice each in the season's first seven weeks.
In April, the Orioles figured they needed every run they could get for Daal.
He was shaky at first, raising some eyebrows about Beattie and Flanagan's decision to sign him to a two-year, $7.5 million contract.
But last night, Daal (4-5) pitched eight strong innings and defeated the high-powered Rangers for the second time in six days. In his past eight starts, Daal is 4-3 with a 3.46 ERA, and he's starting to put some of those doubts to rest. Daal has gone 23 innings without issuing a walk.
"That's what I used to see out of Omar," Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley said. "His arm strength seems to be good right now. He's using the same arm speed with his changeup. He's using the whole plate, and he has good command on both sides of the plate with his breaking ball."
Another player starting to prove his worth is Cruz. Signed to a one-year, $1.2 million contract, Cruz was batting .167 on May 6, but he went 2-for-4 last night, raising his average to .232.
Cruz got the crowd excited with a fine defensive play in the eighth inning.
With Hank Blalock on first base, Alex Rodriguez doubled to left field. Trailing 8-1, Blalock took a big risk trying to score, but the relay throw from Melvin Mora to Cruz to Geronimo Gil had to be perfect.
It was, and the crowd roared again.
"That was the most exciting play of the game," Hargrove said. "It wasn't crucial, obviously, but when something like that happens, it's one of the prettiest plays in baseball."
Mora and Tony Batista extended their hitting streaks to 12 games and 11, respectively.
The rest of the highlights came from the offense. Mora went 1-for-3, leaving his average at .356. Blalock, who entered with the major league lead in hitting, went 1-for-4, dropping him into a tie with Mora at .356.
Luis Matos had another big night for the Orioles, going 2-for-4 with a double, an RBI and a run scored. In seven games since coming up from Triple-A Ottawa, Matos is batting .467.
TV/Radio:Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Rangers' Joaquin Benoit (2-1, 6.08) vs. Orioles' Rick Helling (2-4, 6.36)