With all the attention surrounding Rafael Palmeiro's return from a 10-day suspension, it was easy to overlook how the Orioles needed a victory last night to complete their first sweep in two months. Game details seemed to get lost, even with Palmeiro out of the starting lineup. He no doubt would have appreciated the diversion.
Intent on keeping most of the focus on the team and not one maligned player, the Orioles got seven solid innings from starter Bruce Chen, a home run from Javy Lopez and a timely balk call to defeat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 4-2, before 27,958 at Camden Yards. The Orioles (56-58) hadn't swept a series since taking three games from the Houston Astros in June. They're 5-2 under interim manager Sam Perlozzo, 9-18 since the break.
They're also getting pretty good at blocking out distractions. And there's been an ample supply.
"We tried to keep it as normal as we could and I thought it went pretty well," Perlozzo said. "The ballclub responded the way I expected them to. We went about our business as usual. I would have been surprised if we had done it any other way."
Back from a steroid-related suspension, Palmeiro approached a few teammates at their lockers, took batting practice and signed autographs before heading inside. He leaned on a bat in the corner of the dugout, an inviting target for television cameras, and later took a seat beside pitcher Sidney Ponson.
Perlozzo indicated that it could be a few more days before Palmeiro returns to the lineup, "but if he runs in here and knocks my door down, we'd consider it."
"I just have to go out there and get my feet wet, I guess," Palmeiro said. "I haven't done anything in 10 days, so I'm going to need a couple of days to get back into it."
His exposure to fans was somewhat limited, leaving open the question of how he'll be received once he steps in the batter's box for the first time. The reception could be harsh. Derogatory T-shirts and signs were displayed in the crowd, and it doesn't figure to get much better.
"I can't really worry about that right now," Palmeiro said. "I hope that they cheer. I think that every player likes to be cheered. No one likes to be booed. But I'll accept whatever they have."
Perlozzo wasn't as tolerant with the umpiring crew. He left the dugout to argue another call, this one coming in the fifth inning after a young fan leaned over the fence near the Orioles' bullpen to interfere with a fly ball from Eduardo Perez, resulting in a two-run homer that cut the lead to 3-2. Perez initially was given a double before plate umpire Doug Eddings reversed the call.
"I couldn't tell," Perlozzo said. "We called the 'pen and they said it hit the top of the fence. I'm assuming that's correct. If my guys tell me something, I'm going to believe them. If they're wrong, I'm going to get on them. Don't make me go out there and make a fool out of myself."
Left fielder Eric Byrnes leaped at the fence before the fan reached over his glove.
The Orioles have been victimized by balk calls throughout the season, but they benefited from one in the fourth inning. Luis Matos singled with two outs to score Jay Gibbons, and Alejandro Freire came home when Devil Rays starter Doug Waechter balked while throwing to first base on an attempted pickoff.
Chen (9-6) was perfect his first time through the Devil Rays' order. Only two balls left the infield, and he struck out three batters. He allowed three hits and left after 77 pitches, with Todd Williams replacing him in the eighth.
Williams got a double play, and B.J. Ryan recorded his 25th save.
"If [Chen] got in trouble next inning, I was going to go get him, so let's get him out on a positive note," Perlozzo said. "He did everything he was supposed to do. It was up to the bullpen at that point to go ahead and close that thing out."
Lopez crushed a 2-0 fastball from Waechter in the sixth inning to give Chen an extra run. The lead held up, as did a team that's had reason to crumble, but won't do it.
"A lot of credit goes to Sam on that, coming in and trying to create a positive atmosphere," said David Newhan, who had a run-scoring single in the second. "It's an amazing thing when you get everyone pulling for each other. You don't have to like a guy off the field, but when you come in this clubhouse, everyone's a family and you've got to be vocal and pull for each other. And when that happens, things fall your way somehow."