The lead was shrinking quickly for the Orioles last night, and it was only the eighth inning, a little soon to summon Jorge Julio, but manager Mike Hargrove had reached the point where he couldn't wait.
It was time for the young closer to take off the training wheels and ride.
Hargrove made his move, and Julio stopped the Toronto Blue Jays' rally right in its tracks, recording the final four outs as the Orioles escaped with a 6-5 victory before a paid crowd of 27,022 at Camden Yards.
After overcoming an early 2-0 deficit, the Orioles took the lead in the fifth inning and held on to win for just the ninth time in their past 27 games.
Facing the first five hitters in Toronto's lineup, Julio turned in one of his most impressive performances as an Oriole, patching another leak in the bullpen and preserving Jason Johnson's first career victory over the Blue Jays.
"My heart started racing a little bit, and I was getting a little nervous," said Johnson, who left with a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning. "Julio came in and did a great job. That was definitely encouraging."
Johnson (7-3) held the Blue Jays to four runs on eight hits in 7 1/3 innings.
He watched the eighth inning from the bench, sweating through the final two outs as the Orioles clung to their one-run lead.
Then, Johnson retreated to the clubhouse, where he paced around and took occasional glances at the TV, hoping not to jinx Julio.
Hargrove called Johnson's effort "absolutely outstanding."
But with one out in the eighth inning, Toronto started its comeback. Carlos Delgado singled, and Tom Wilson doubled, putting runners at second and third.
Hargrove summoned left-hander Buddy Groom.
"[Johnson] started the eighth with 105 pitches, said he felt pretty good, and all of a sudden, it started to leave him," Hargrove said. "So we got him out of there, and then the merry-go-round started."
Groom retired the only batter he faced, as Eric Hinske hit a long sacrifice fly to left field, deep enough for Delgado to score and Wilson to reach third.
Four outs from victory, Hargrove called for right-hander Kerry Ligtenberg.
The next three batters all singled. Pinch hitter Greg Myers, a former Oriole, made it 6-4 with a liner to center. Orlando Hudson singled, and then pinch hitter Howie Clark, another former Oriole, made it 6-5 with a flare to right.
So Hargrove turned to the 24-year-old Julio.
"A year ago, at this time, we may not have done that," Hargrove said, "because we didn't feel like [Julio] was ready for something like that."
Julio has 42 career saves now, but in 39 of those, he has only had to record three outs. Hargrove tried to get a five-out save out of Julio on June 6 in St. Louis, and it backfired, as the Cardinals rallied for an 8-6 victory.
This time, he immediately eased the tension, getting Shannon Stewart to loft a little flare into shallow center field. Luis Matos hustled in to make the catch.
But it was far from over. After the Orioles failed to score in the eighth, Julio started the ninth by getting Frank Catalanotto to ground to shortstop.
Then, Julio struck out Vernon Wells with a fastball that registered 100 mph on the stadium's radar gun.
Next it was Delgado, who had hit a 440-foot home run off Julio the last time he faced him, on June 24 at SkyDome. Delgado leads the major leagues with 28 home runs and 91 RBIs.
"If we can get through the eighth, 1-2-3, we're not looking at the meat of the order in the ninth," Hargrove said. "And that's certainly what we were trying to get accomplished. It's not a real good feeling. The last time Delgado faced Julio, he hit a ball a long way. But Jorge was good tonight."
Delgado singled to center field, but Julio was happy to settle for that after the last time. Wilson came up, and Julio threw two 99-mph fastballs for strikes before finishing him off with an 86-mph slider.
Julio has converted 17 of his 21 save chances this season.
"That," Orioles catcher Brook Fordyce said, "was big."
Earlier, Fordyce had given the Orioles a big play of his own. In the second inning, Stewart singled to left field, scoring Josh Phelps from third base.
Hudson tried scoring from second, but Orioles left fielder Melvin Mora cut him down with a strong one-hop throw to the plate.
Instead of sliding for a corner of the plate, Hudson tried plowing over Fordyce, who fielded the ball on his knees. But Fordyce held on, and Johnson was out of the inning.
Jeff Conine had a two-run homer for the Orioles, his 10th of the season, and Mora went 2-for-5, raising his average to .351.
Blue Jays starter Doug Davis (4-6) had held the Orioles to two runs in six innings on June 23, but this time he was gone after facing two batters in the fifth.