BALTIMORE, SEPT. 21 -- On another day and in another year, this might have been a loss for the Toronto Blue Jays. Jesse Barfield might not have raced home on a softly hit double-play grounder. George Bell might not have caught up with Mike Boddicker at a crucial moment. And Dave Stieb's slump might have been a game or a month longer.

But in a special season, there are special nights, and this was another for the Blue Jays, who beat the Baltimore Orioles, 2-1, before 13,683 at Memorial Stadium.

In a neck-and-neck American League East race, the Blue Jays (91-59) swapped places with the Detroit Tigers (90-59), moving from a half-game out of first place into a half-game lead. Detroit lost at Boston tonight, but what's happening in places like Boston and Baltimore these days is merely jockeying for the final 11 days of the season when the Tigers and Blue Jays will play seven times.

The crucial stint begins with a four-game series at Exhibition Stadium Thursday and ends with three games in Detroit on the final weekend of the season.

"We know it's there," Blue Jays reliever Tom Henke said. "We think about it. But basically we have to take care of business here. Just because these guys {the Orioles} are out of the race doesn't mean they're not trying. Winning a series like this is a must."

If the Orioles haven't quit by now, they probably should. Tonight's loss was their 18th in 21 games and dropped them to 63-87, 28 games out of first.

In the history of an old and proud franchise, the Orioles haven't been this far below .500 since they finished the 1955 season 40 games under. Their 28-game deficit is their biggest since they finished the '56 season 28 games out.

They're also 30-47 at Memorial Stadium, the worst home record in the majors, and the 47 losses ties the club record established in 1955. Against the five teams in front of them in the division, the Orioles have an overall 7-46 record.

Tonight, the Blue Jays got seven strong innings from Stieb, although reliever John Cerutti (11-4) pitched to one batter in the eighth to get the victory. Henke pitched the ninth for his 33rd save.

Meanwhile, the Orioles collected just three hits, including Jim Dwyer's 15th homer.

The game was tied, 1-1, as the ninth began, thanks to Boddicker, who kept his team in the game despite again being bothered by back spasms.

But Lloyd Moseby opened the ninth by dumping a double in front of Orioles left fielder Larry Sheets. Tony Fernandez bunted Moseby to second, which brought up Bell, the probable American League Most Valuable Player. With first base open, Boddicker had the option of walking arguably the league's most feared hitter (.311, 46 home runs, 129 runs batted in).

He decided to pitch to him because when the game began, Bell had a career .057 batting average against Boddicker (two for 35). Boddicker played the percentages once too often.

Bell lined a single to left, his third hit of the game, for his 129th RBI.

"I can't say anything about that," Bell said. "I give him credit for getting me out. He's really the only guy I've had a hard time with."

Boddicker (10-10) said he decided to pitch to Bell instead of on-deck hitter Ernie Whitt because of his past success. "I tried to stick with the game plan," he said. "I had a different delivery tonight. I came over my head with my hands. Maybe I should have gone back to the old delivery just for him, but I had a game plan and stuck with it. Sure, he got three hits and the game-winner. But it was a 2-1 ballgame, and I'll take that. I thought I pitched well."

Orioles Manager Cal Ripken Sr. said, "I gave him the option of pitching to Bell {or to Whitt}. He decided he wanted to pitch to him, and if he walked him, it was all right. He's had great success pitching to Bell except for tonight."

Stieb was making his first start since being demoted to the bullpen two weeks ago. He was sent there after walking 10 of 31 batters over two starts, and since then he has pitched twice in relief, walking four and allowing one run in 6 1/3 innings.

Whatever problems he had apparently have been worked out because he was excellent tonight, allowing one run and two hits in seven innings. He walked one and hit a batter.

"I was fortunate," Stieb said. "They hit some balls right at people. I'd had it by the seventh."

The only run against him was Dwyer's homer, which came with one out in the fourth. That homer was also the 200th for the Orioles, and in a season of milestones this was another: They're the first team in history to hit 200 homers and give up 200 homers in the same season.

No other Oriole got as far as second against Stieb, who may make his next start against Detroit this weekend. Toronto Manager Jimy Williams also is considering using left-hander Cerutti against the Tigers, who may be the best team in the league against right-handed pitching.

Meanwhile, Boddicker sailed through the first eight innings. The Blue Jays had two runners as far as second in the first four innings, then tied the game, 1-1, in the last of the fifth.

Barfield led off with an infield single and went to third when Rance Mulliniks bounced a double off the left field fence. Barfield scored when Rick Leach hit a double-play grounder to Cal Ripken Jr. at shortstop, and Boddicker got out of the inning by striking out Willie Upshaw.

He breezed through the next three innings until Moseby's double in the ninth.

"He deserved a better fate," Ripken Sr. said. "His back was bothering him, and then it went away. He gave up two runs, but they weren't all his fault. Moseby's ball should have been caught, but Larry couldn't get to it. He doesn't have the speed to make that play."