Jack Cust looked up last night and saw home plate sitting there, naked and unattended, without a Yankee in sight.
It was the glimmering hope on the horizon. The long, eventful trip around the bases, the hideous fall -- none of it mattered now, because Cust was about to score the tying run for the Orioles.
Twelfth inning, two outs, a sellout crowd of 48,499 at Camden Yards in delirium, and then it happened again. Cust fell down -- this time face-first -- Aaron Boone tagged him, and the New York Yankees escaped with a 5-4 victory.
"He had a free trip home and tripped and fell," a stunned Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said after his team's sixth consecutive loss.
The Orioles have found some creative ways to lose this year.
No game has featured an ending quite like this.
Jason Giambi hit his American League-leading 35th home run off Orioles reliever Hector Carrasco with two outs in the 12th, giving the Yankees the lead.
After getting a game-tying home run from Luis Matos off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the ninth, the Orioles looked like they were finally buried.
Catonsville native Jeff Nelson came on to pitch the 12th for New York and quickly retired the first two batters. Cust came up as a pinch hitter, after watching the game's first 3 hours and 45 minutes from the bench.
He worked a walk against Nelson, keeping the Orioles alive.
And then Larry Bigbie hit a double into the right-center field gap.
"When Bigs hit it," Cust said, "I was thinking of scoring the whole way."
Orioles third base coach Tom Trebelhorn watched the ball, hoping beyond hope that it would roll all the way to the outfield wall.
But Yankees right fielder Karim Garcia cut the ball off and fired a throw to Alfonso Soriano, the strong-armed second baseman.
"I was waiting for the last possible moment to see if [Soriano] got a short-hop," Trebelhorn said. "If he had to go to one side or the other and had to juggle it a little bit."
Under any of those scenarios, Trebelhorn was prepared to send Cust home. Trebelhorn waved Cust home, but Soriano fielded the relay throw cleanly, and the coach threw up the stop sign, like a sudden red light trying to stop a semi-trailer.
Cust's momentum took him past third base. He tried to stop like a hockey player, on the sides of both feet, but his cleats slipped out from under him.
"With hindsight," Trebelhorn said, "Jack's a big guy; it's tougher for Jack to stop than other guys, and it was a tough play for Jack. If he doesn't fall, he gets back easy."
Soriano realized he had Cust trapped and fired the ball to Boone, the third baseman.
Stuck in the pickle to end all pickles, Cust tried running home, but Boone fired a throw to Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. So Cust retreated toward third.
Posada made one last throw back to Boone, and that's when Cust turned and saw the promised land.
"We were supposed to have a couple of people there," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Our pitcher was supposed to be there, and our first baseman."
Boone said he probably wouldn't have caught Cust if he hadn't fallen the second time.
But a play that started at first base, seemingly an hour earlier, caught up to Cust again.
"I tried to kick it into another gear so he wouldn't tag me," Cust said. "I knew his legs were fresher than mine at that point, and I tried to pick it up, and I just slipped."
Boone made the tag, and Cust picked himself up, slowly. A dugout full of Orioles just stood there, hanging on the railing, stunned.
It had been such a strange game from the beginning, as the Yankees let them bat out of order three times in the first two innings. Tony Batista hit a sacrifice fly in the first inning that could have been nullified if New York had been paying closer attention.
"It's inexcusable," Torre said. "It was totally my fault."
Orioles starter Pat Hentgen was in line for the victory after holding the Yankees to two runs on five hits in six innings. The Orioles used home runs from two unlikely sources -- Jose Morban and Brook Fordyce -- to grab a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning.
The Yankees came back to tie it with their own unlikely power source, backup catcher John Flaherty, who turned in his first two-homer game in four years.
Flaherty, the Yankees' No. 9 hitter, hit a home run off Hentgen in the fifth inning and another off Orioles reliever John Parrish in the seventh inning, which tied the score, 3-3.
The Yankees grabbed their first lead in the eighth, when Hideki Matsui hit a two-out, run-scoring single off Parrish. Matos tied it with his ninth-inning homer, as Rivera blew his sixth save in 31 chances this season.
Giambi hit his homer, spoiling an otherwise effective relief outing from Carrasco, and then Cust had his magical mystery tour.
"It's just a weird thing that happened," Cust said. "I can't say I've seen it happen at the end of the game before."
Losing it late
The Orioles have lost six games in a row, including four in which they held leads entering the seventh inning or later:
Day Opp. Lead/Inn. Res.
8-11 T.B. 3-1/8th L, 4-3
8-12 T.B. L, 4-2
8-13 T.B. L, 6-5*
8-14 N.Y. 5-3/7th L, 8-5
8-15 N.Y. 3-2/9th L, 6-4
8-16 N.Y. 3-2/7th L, 5-4**
*-10 innings; **-12 innings.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Yankees' Mike Mussina (13-6, 3.19) vs. Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (5-7, 5.62)