If progress is measured in wins, the Orioles are a better team in 2004. The rest of their homestand will determine just how much.
Miguel Tejada provided a strong hint last night. It measured 415 feet and made grown men jump around like kids.
Needing one more victory to surpass their 2003 total, the Orioles got it when Tejada hit a three-run homer off Esteban Yan in the ninth inning to defeat the Detroit Tigers, 7-5, before 25,846 at Camden Yards.
Yan tried to blow a 1-0 fastball past Tejada, who crushed it to center field for his 31st homer. Players mobbed him at home plate, and manager Lee Mazzilli walked on the field with arms raised high.
"I was yelling to the guys on the bench, `Maybe it's about time we won in the ninth inning after what happened in Boston,'" Mazzilli said, referring to consecutive walk-off wins by the Red Sox earlier this week.
"That's the way to win, no question."
The Orioles have four sudden-death victories, the other three provided by Larry Bigbie. They also have 72 wins, with 10 more games to play.
"Everybody believes we're a good team," said Tejada, who leads the majors with 138 RBIs, four behind Rafael Palmeiro for the team record. "If we played good baseball in the beginning, we'd be close to the Red Sox and Yankees."
Former Oriole Jason Johnson left after 6 2/3 innings with a 5-3 lead, but he still hasn't won since July 29. He scattered nine hits and struck out eight.
On his 40th birthday, Rafael Palmeiro struck out three times against Johnson but didn't get the chance to face him again in the seventh with the tying runs on base. Palmeiro flied out against Jamie Walker, leaving him with six stranded runners.
Wanting one more opportunity in the ninth, he stood in the on-deck circle as Tejada faced Yan. David Newhan had grounded a leadoff single to right field and Melvin Mora walked, setting up a finish that left Tejada with four hits and Yan with his hands on his hips.
"It seems like whatever I've tried to do hasn't worked," manager Alan Trammell said. "It's not a very good feeling."
Burned so many times by his bullpen this season, Trammell didn't shy away from it. He used four relievers in the eighth, relying on matchups to strand B.J. Surhoff after Javy Lopez began the inning with a home run off Walker.
The Orioles' bullpen brought a different result. Todd Williams registered 2 1/3 scoreless innings after replacing Bruce Chen in the sixth, and John Parrish struck out two in a perfect ninth.
"Everybody's been doing good," Parrish said. "It's been contagious. There's a lot of help out there if you need it."
With 10 games remaining, the Orioles are hunkered down in third place. Only a total collapse will lower them into fourth, where they finished the past six seasons.
Hopeful of taking a monumental leap after spending $121 million on four free agents last winter, the organization instead must be content with smaller steps. As long as it's moving forward.
That was the direction taken in the first inning, when the Orioles took a 3-0 lead against Johnson. But the Tigers scored four runs in the fifth against Chen - a two-out single by Ivan Rodriguez putting them ahead - and Carlos Pena hit a bases-empty homer in the sixth.
No longer able to soak up a playoff atmosphere, the raucous surroundings of Fenway Park replaced by the more subdued venue at home, the Orioles need to find other sources of motivation. It's likely that Johnson had his own.
Non-tendered by the club after last season, Johnson signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Tigers and pitched on Opening Day. He has lost six straight decisions, and the frustration intensified when he was ejected in his last start.
Another early exit seemed possible, but Johnson made it into the seventh by clearing the occasional trouble spots.
"I don't care about the Orioles anymore," he said. "I want to pitch well for the Tigers."
Prone to long innings that zap the energy from a team, Johnson gave up three runs in a 23-pitch first. Two of them scored on Lopez's two-out single, after Tejada's infield hit provided a 1-0 lead.
Chen couldn't hold it, and his first start at Camden Yards in six outings looked like a loss. But Newhan singled, Mora reached base for the fourth time and Tejada sent everyone home happy.
"I get to see this guy play every day, every inning," Mazzilli said. "He has to be the most amazing player."
"I'm real happy to be here," Tejada said. "I think that's why I come here ready to play. I just want to help the team."
Last night, he gave it a win - distinctive in number.
"You sit on the bench," Mazzilli said, "and you feel like you have a chance."
Now that's progress.
Date Pitcher(s) Opp. Res.
9/20/58 Hoyt Wilhelm N.Y. W 1-0
4/30/67 Steve Barber, Det. L 1-2
4/27/68 Tom Phoebus Bos. W 6-0
8/13/69 Jim Palmer Oak. W 8-0
7/13/91 Bob Milacki, Oak. W 2-0
Same time last year
In the Orioles' 152nd game last year, they tied with the Yankees, 1-1. Here's where the Orioles stood (including one tie game):
Record Standing GA/GB
68-83 4th -25 1/2
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 4:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Tigers' Jeremy Bonderman (10-12, 5.20) vs. Orioles' Matt Riley (1-4, 6.28)