OAKLAND, Calif. - Call off the search dogs and the sports psychologists. The reigning American League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Award winners are happy and well here at Network Associates Coliseum.
Apparently, all Miguel Tejada and Barry Zito needed was an opportunity to beat up on the Orioles again. If last night was any indication, they're both ready for another important stretch drive.
Tejada hit two homers in a game for the first time this year and Zito dazzled for eight innings as the Oakland Athletics defeated the Orioles, 6-2, to extend their winning streak to five games.
Pat Hentgen tried to match Zito in a battle of former Cy Young winners, but Oakland grabbed the lead during an exhausting, 40-pitch fourth inning, and chased him from the game in the fifth after Tejada hit his second homer.
"I was doing everything you shouldn't do as a pitcher, falling behind, walking people," Hentgen said. "Tejada's swinging the bat real well right now, and to make two pitches like I did, gut balls - I just pitched poorly."
The Orioles, who are 0-5 against Oakland this year, have dropped 12 of their past 16 games, including four straight, and there's no relief in sight. Their next 13 games come against Oakland, Seattle and Boston - the three teams scrambling for two berths in the AL playoffs.
With last night's win, Oakland moved into sole possession of first place in the AL West for the first time since April 12.
Meanwhile, the Orioles are dreaming of next year, and this gave them another chance to drool at the prospect of plucking Tejada off the upcoming free agent market.
Earlier this season, Tejada looked like the pressure of a contract season might be getting to him. He hit .176 over his first 32 games, but in the 101 games since, he's batting .306.
The home runs are piling up, too. Tejada has six home runs in his past eight games, giving him 23 for the season. A year ago, during his MVP campaign, he hit .375 against the Orioles.
Zito (11-11) also seems to be finding his form. He tossed eight shutout innings against the Orioles on July 13 but received a no-decision, typifying the lack of run support he received earlier in the year.
Last night, Zito allowed two runs and four hits, lowering his ERA to 3.33.
Few teams have more respect for Oakland's Big Three of Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder than the Orioles. That trio had held them scoreless for 45 consecutive innings before Deivi Cruz hit a bases-empty home run in the fourth.
Cruz's career-high 14th homer tied the score, 1-1, but Oakland came right back against Hentgen, who said, "It was a grind all game."
Hentgen (5-7) had pitched at least six innings in each of his past eight starts, going 3-1 with a 3.11 ERA and drawing interest from the A's, who may trade for a veteran starter with Mulder possibly lost for the season with a broken femur.
This time, Hentgen gave up Tejada's first homer to start the second and arrived at the pivotal fourth inning with 53 pitches. By the time it was over, he was at 93.
With one out, Erubiel Durazo drew a nine-pitch walk, and Ramon Hernandez worked Hentgen for another nine pitches before flying out to right. Those long plate sessions took their toll on Hentgen.
His next three batters went single, four-pitch walk, four-pitch walk. Former Oriole Chris Singleton took that last free pass, forcing home the go-ahead run. Scott Hatteberg struck out to end the inning, but the A's had done their damage.
"That didn't really affect me, other than it screwed my pitch count, and buried me," Hentgen said, contradicting himself. "I struggled to get through the fifth."
The Orioles didn't give him much rest.
Zito breezed through the fifth on six pitches, as Jay Gibbons, Tony Batista and Brook Fordyce hit three weak balls to second baseman Mark Ellis.
Before Hentgen could make his seat warm, he had to go out and pitch again.
Orioles manager Mike Hargrove defended his team's hitting approach.
"It's all well and good to go deep into the count," he said. "But with the repertoire of pitches that Zito has, you don't get an opportunity to go deep in the count very often."
Tejada came up again in the fifth with one out and a runner on second.
Hargrove had right-hander Rick Bauer warming the previous inning, but when asked if he thought about making a move there, Hargrove said, "With the state our bullpen was in tonight [following Tuesday's 12-inning defeat], no."
Hentgen left a 1-0 pitch high in the zone, and Tejada lifted it over the left-field wall for his second home run and a 4-1 lead.
"I was trying to throw change-up down and in, and I threw it letter-high right over the plate," Hentgen said. "Usually, you don't get those balls back."
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Network Associates Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.
Time: 3:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (6-8, 5.45) vs. A's John Halama (2-4, 4.05)