BALTIMORE, May 7 -- On Jose Lima's trip off the mound and out of the game, after the Orioles had scored five runs against him, the veteran pitcher looked toward the opposing dugout and tipped his hat to a team that had beaten him with its bats and with its pitching. On a day when he had better-than-average stuff, the Orioles still handed Lima his third loss of the year.
And on a day when the Kansas City Royals could not offer much against starting pitcher Bruce Chen, the Orioles, with their 5-3 win, improved to 11 games over .500 for the first time this season. The win clinched Baltimore's seventh series win of the year.
An even bigger surprise than the Orioles being in first place by three games on May 8 is that their pitching has helped carry them there. The team that was supposed to pound the opposition because of its powerful lineup has instead won games on the mound.
"I felt all along that our pitching is better than what people think it is," Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "It's okay, they can think what they want to think. If teams want your young pitching, that means something is there. They're still going to run into some bumps, but they've taken giant leaps."
Three of the Orioles' five starters have ERAs under 3.55. Baltimore starters have pitched at least six innings in 12 of the past 13 games. One of them (Erik Bedard) ranks in the American League's top five in ERA. The one with the second-worst ERA (Sidney Ponson) is tied for the team lead in wins. Baltimore starters are 12th in the majors in ERA, certainly higher than where they were projected.
"I told people early on our pitching is not the concern in this clubhouse," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "They've had great stuff all along. It's a matter of getting comfortable at this level. They've gone through that now. I'd take our guys' stuff over anybody's in the game."
And on Saturday, Chen improved his record to 4-1. Chen's career high in wins is seven. It seems almost a certainty he will pass that mark this year.
"It is not how hard you throw it, it's how you throw and where you throw it," Mazzilli said of the soft-tossing Chen. "He mixes his pitches up very well. He really obviously has an idea of how to pitch."
Chen's only mistake was a two-run home run by Mike Sweeney in the sixth that can be forgiven because it would have never happened if not for Roberts's error with two outs. Chen pitched seven innings, allowing just four hits and two unearned runs. His ERA improved to 3.12.
In the offseason, Chen, who was not guaranteed a spot in the rotation entering spring training, returned to Panama and trained like he had not done before. He ran miles each day and pitched 14 to 15 innings against teams in his home country.
"I knew I didn't have anything secured," Chen said.
Kansas City is perhaps where the Orioles were a few years ago. The Royals are a star-less team with no hope of contending this season. They are perhaps playing for next year already, and not that long ago the same was said of Baltimore. The Orioles are no longer the bumbling franchise. It is Kansas City which makes the head-scratching mistakes to lose ballgames.
The Orioles extended their lead in the fifth to 4-0 on a shallow fly ball by Miguel Tejada that was misplayed by left fielder Eli Marrero, a converted catcher, and center fielder David DeJesus. Marrero first called for the ball, which drifted slowly toward center field. By that time DeJesus had already assumed Marrero was going to make the play and hadn't followed the ball. When he noticed Marrero would not be able to catch the ball, DeJesus made a last-gasp dive at it. The ball landed on the ground, allowing Roberts and Melvin Mora to score.
In the ninth inning, the Royals botched a rally against Baltimore closer B.J. Ryan when Joe McEwing could not complete a sacrifice bunt with men on first and second with no outs. McEwing popped up the ball. Emil Brown, standing on second, continued to run to third despite the popup. Ryan caught the popup and Brown stumbled on his way back to second base. He was doubled up easily by Ryan. The game ended on John Buck's strikeout. The Orioles have won three in a row.
"I think we're going to keep it going," Chen said. "I don't see any reason we can't."