BOSTON - For all of their struggles this season, the Orioles have played one role consistently well - that of chief tormentor of the Boston Red Sox - and they returned to that part again last night in another bitter struggle at Fenway Park.
The Red Sox weren't happy to see the Orioles come in the first place, not in the final week of the season with a narrow lead in the American League wild-card race.
This time, Boston tried to suffocate the Orioles with a furious start, scoring three runs against Jason Johnson before he recorded his first out. But the game stayed emotionally charged until the end, when the Red Sox finally sealed the 7-5 victory.
The Orioles fell behind 6-2 in the sixth inning but pulled within one run against the beleaguered Boston bullpen before David Ortiz gave the Red Sox an extra boost with a monstrous eighth-inning home run off Orioles reliever Kerry Ligtenberg.
Byung-Hyun Kim finally restored some order in the ninth, retiring the Orioles in order to earn his 16th save.
"There's always a team somewhere that plays you well, no matter what you do or where you go, and this year, it's Baltimore," said Red Sox reliever and former Orioles closer Mike Timlin. "I'm not going to take anything from them because they're a major league club."
Even with the loss, the Orioles are still even in their season series against Boston, with eight wins apiece, and they'll play each other three more times this week.
But the Red Sox moved a little closer to their goal, lowering to four their magic number to clinch the wild-card berth over the Seattle Mariners, who played a late game at Anaheim.
"We battled all night," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "We just came up short. This team's played hard all year."
In the first inning, Johnson (10-9) did everything a pitcher isn't supposed to do, especially against the highest-scoring offense in baseball.
His first pitch to each of Boston's first four hitters was a ball. He fell behind in the count to both Johnny Damon and Nomar Garciaparra, 3-1, and that led to a double and a walk.
Then Todd Walker fouled off a pair of 2-2 pitches before hitting a ball high off the Green Monster in left. Larry Bigbie will get more familiar with that wall in time if he continues to establish himself as the Orioles' future in left field, but Walker's ball came down and bounced off his right foot for a two-run triple.
Next it was Manny Ramirez, a .394 hitter against Johnson for his career, and with a 1-0 count he hit a scorching liner right through shortstop Deivi Cruz for a single, and Walker scored with Boston's third run.
Just like that, Red Sox Nation exhaled.
Boston starter Jeff Suppan (3-3) had a cozy little cushion, one like the Orioles haven't provided Johnson in weeks. The last time the Orioles provided Johnson with anything more than a one-run lead was Aug. 10 - the day he matched his career-high with his 10th victory in a 5-3 win over the Red Sox at Fenway.
He has made eight starts since then, going 0-4 with a 4.62 ERA.
After falling behind those first four hitters, Johnson righted himself, and the Red Sox punished him anyway. He threw a first-pitch strike to both Ramirez and Trot Nixon in the fourth inning, and both of them hit home runs.
Ramirez lofted his 36th homer of the season into the Red Sox bullpen behind the right-field wall, and Nixon sent his 28th down the right-field line for a 5-1 lead.
But the Orioles weren't finished, and before it was over, center fielder Luis Matos got himself ejected for arguing balls and strikes.
Matos had two run-ins with home-plate umpire Doug Eddings, the first coming right before he swatted his 12th homer of the season in the fifth inning.
Suppan threw a curveball for a strike, and Matos looked back and said something to Eddings, who took off his mask, and walked in front of the plate to show the young hitter where the ball had crossed.
When Matos hit his home run, it trimmed the lead to 5-2, and when the Red Sox tried pulling away in the sixth, the Orioles didn't let them.
Hargrove removed Johnson that inning with the bases loaded, no outs, and one run already across, but Buddy Groom came on and got three outs with two pitches. Nixon hit a little tapper in front of the mound, and Groom tossed home for the force, and then Bill Mueller grounded into a 5-4-3 double play.
With a 6-2 lead, Red Sox manager Grady Little turned to his bullpen, sending waves of angst through the sellout crowd of 33,821.
Jack Cust hit the second pitch from Todd Jones into the right-field seats for his fourth homer of the season. That inning, Matos got himself ejected for disputing another called strike with Eddings, with first base coach Rick Dempsey and third base coach Tom Trebelhorn rushing in to prevent Matos from bumping Eddings or doing something else that could earn him a suspension.
Matos declined comment, but Hargrove defended him.
"The pitches were low," Hargrove said. "They were obviously low. The umpire disagreed with him. It doesn't change the fact the balls were low."