BOSTON - Taking a lead or two against the Boston Red Sox hasn't been a difficult chore for the Orioles. Scoring the tying run in the ninth inning, in hostile surroundings, almost looks easy, like playing an intrasquad game before a few hundred fans. They are immune to the pressure, almost bored by the routine.
When it comes to finishing the job, however, they are at a loss. Two in a row.
Playing in his first game since returning from Colombia, where his wife underwent surgery earlier this week, shortstop Orlando Cabrera led off the 12th inning with a home run off reliever Rick Bauer to give the Red Sox a 7-6 victory over the Orioles last night at sold-out Fenway Park.
Cabrera lifted a 2-2 fastball over the Green Monster to send the crowd into a frenzy and the Orioles into a clubhouse that would remain silent except for some encouraging words from manager Lee Mazzilli.
"It was supposed to be down and away and it ran up a little," Bauer said of his final pitch to Cabrera. "Our team battled all night and I ruined it."
Held out of the lineup for a second straight game because of a strained hamstring, Rafael Palmeiro led off the ninth inning with a pinch-hit home run against Red Sox closer Keith Foulke to tie the score.
Both teams loaded the bases in extra innings without ending the suspense, with the Orioles' Jay Gibbons grounding into a 3-2-4 double play in the 12th. It was left to Cabrera, who gave Boston its ninth walk-off win this year after taking a red-eye from Bogota.
"Six hours," he said. "I slept the whole night on the plane."
Bauer (1-1) hadn't pitched in 10 days. He retired the first four batters he faced, and Cabrera's run was only the second he has allowed in 8 1/3 innings since returning from Triple-A Ottawa.
Asked what he was thinking as he entered with two outs in the 10th, with any mistake likely to decide the outcome, he said, "Just get everyone out and make the game go on as long as possible. I didn't do a good job of it, obviously."
David Ortiz hit a two-run homer off Sidney Ponson in the seventh inning, his 40th of the season, to put Boston ahead 6-5. But Palmeiro found the right-field seats with the count full for his 549th career homer, moving past Mike Schmidt for 10th place on the all-time list.
Foulke has been taken deep in all three games of the series, twice mishandling leads. He had converted 16 consecutive save chances before Tuesday.
"If we had a two-run lead," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said, "we'd be brushing this aside."
That's what Mazzilli wanted to do.
"I'm proud of my team," he said. "I told them after the game, `You should hold your heads up high.' They did a hell of a job. We just came up a little short. You can sleep on a game like that."
The Orioles (70-80) won the first game but no longer can hold down the Red Sox, who moved within 3 1/2 games of the New York Yankees in the American League East.
"We battled this team, who we weren't supposed to be able to play against," said Mazzilli, whose club is 5-4 on its final road trip with one game left. "They're supposed to be one of the best teams and we played hard against them. You go out there and play hard every game, good things are going to happen."
On a steady decline this month, David Newhan stepped up with a two-run homer off Red Sox starter Bronson Arroyo to give the Orioles a 4-2 lead in the fifth inning. Newhan was hitting .179 in his previous 14 games.
Larry Bigbie put the Orioles ahead again, 5-4, with a two-out double off reliever Mike Myers in the sixth. The Red Sox had a play at the plate, but Cabrera dropped Manny Ramirez's throw as Javy Lopez was halfway down the line.
Ramirez cost the Red Sox a run, and the lead, in the fifth when he held up at third base on Trot Nixon's run-scoring single despite being waved home.
"Manny kind of used his own judgment," Francona said.
The series took an interesting turn Tuesday when the Red Sox blew a 1-0 lead in the ninth, sending their fans into another panic, before winning on Mark Bellhorn's two-run single.
A subplot developed yesterday when Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie contacted the commissioner's office to see if Francona had the right to request that umpires search pitcher Rodrigo Lopez's cap for a foreign substance.
Lopez carried a shutout into the eighth inning, but he walked the first two batters after being searched and was replaced.
Because Lopez hadn't aroused suspicions in the past, the Orioles viewed the move as a deliberate attempt to rattle Lopez - beyond accepted gamesmanship - and wondered whether the umpires could have refused. Beattie said Major League Baseball is looking into the incident.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Fenway Park, Boston
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Daniel Cabrera (12-7, 4.51) vs. Red Sox's Derek Lowe (14-12, 5.19)