O's show staying power

Palmeiro's 3rd HR in 3 days helps O's bump off Boston to win series, remain in race

No milestone, but 4-1 win satisfying

O's enter break only two behind Red Sox

Lopez in control before record crowd


July 11, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Two failed attempts to increase his career hits total removed much of the drama from Rafael Palmeiro's third at-bat in the sixth inning yesterday. He wasn't going to reach the historic milestone at home, the one that will put him in such elite company. The best he could do was swat another home run and lift the Orioles a little closer to the Boston Red Sox in the division standings.

Ultimately, Palmeiro didn't give the largest crowd in Camden Yards history what it wanted. He gave the crowd what it needed.

The Orioles head into the All-Star break in much better shape than when the Red Sox arrived in town. They took three of the four games in a critical series, winning yesterday, 4-1, before 49,828, and again looking like contenders, a team that won't go away.

Their stay in third place lasting only one day, the Orioles (47-40) trail the Red Sox by two games despite all the injuries, and they lead the New York Yankees by a half game. Squeezed by two clubs, they still look comfortable.

"This is a testimonial to them out there," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "You've got a big Red Sox contingent here. You can hear them. To do what they did and to play through that, that shows you a lot."

A sweep by the Red Sox would have dropped the Orioles eight games back and sounded the alarms. A loss yesterday would have put the margin at four, where it stood when the series began.

"This could have been devastating for us," Palmeiro said.

Did the Orioles, who lost 11 of 13 before playing the Red Sox, make a statement this weekend? "To ourselves," Mazzilli said. "We don't have to make it to anyone else."

The Red Sox might have taken the hint. They're 5-7 against the Orioles this season.

"They know we're not going away if we're healthy," Jay Gibbons said.

No longer working on short rest, Rodrigo Lopez (8-5) took over the team lead in wins by holding the Red Sox to one run, a homer by Trot Nixon, over eight innings. He didn't walk a batter and struck out six.

"His fastball was moving, he had a good slider. He got one pitch up the whole day. Other than that, he was just tremendous," Mazzilli said.

"It came at the right time, no question."

B.J. Ryan pitched the ninth inning for his first save since June 19. Facing David Ortiz for the first time since allowing a three-run, walk-off homer at Fenway Park, he induced a ground ball on a half-swing and struck out Manny Ramirez to end the game.

Palmeiro needs two more hits to reach 3,000 for his career, a milestone that almost assuredly will come during a 10-game road trip that follows the break, beginning Thursday in Seattle. He will become only the fourth player in baseball history with 3,000 hits and 500 homers, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.

"With numbers like that, maybe I belong in their group, but not their class," Palmeiro said. "I know I'm not there."

Palmeiro flied to shallow right field in the second inning. Given a chance to tie the game in the fourth, he lifted a fly ball to center that scored Melvin Mora.

"I wasn't just trying to get hits," he said. "I was trying to be productive."

With two outs in the sixth, Palmeiro crushed a Tim Wakefield knuckleball that registered 68 mph on the stadium's radar gun, giving him 566 career homers, and nine RBIs in the series. He homered in three straight games for the first time since August 2003.

"It knuckled right into my bat," he said. "You swing at a spot. You don't really swing at the ball."

Hesitant to give curtain calls, the fans demanded that Palmeiro come out of the dugout. "It felt great," he said. "It kind of reminded me of when I hit my first home run here my first time around."

Gibbons homered in the fifth to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead. Three straight singles in the seventh inning, the last by Sal Fasano, accounted for the final run.

Lopez, who had lost three straight decisions, retired his last 14 batters in a game that lasted 2:05.

"It just gives me a lot of confidence and something to enjoy during the break," he said.

Lopez improved to 10-4 with a 3.54 ERA in 20 career appearances against the Red Sox. "How this happens," he said, "I can't explain."

Something could have happened to the Orioles this weekend that might have silenced the playoff talk. What transpired instead increases the chatter in the second half.

"I looked at the stats the other day and I think we were 17 games out at this point last year," Gibbons said. "Going into the break 17 games out, there isn't a whole lot of optimism. But being two out and having a good club, there's something to look forward to."

Said Mazzilli: "It's going to be a grind. But if any team shows me that they're up for it, this team does."

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