KANSAS CITY, MO., JULY 29 -- The Baltimore Orioles headed home for their biggest series so far this year after a satisfying weekend here after taking three of four games from the struggling Kansas City Royals.
John Mitchell, Jeff Ballard, and Gregg Olson combined on a four-hitter, and the Orioles got some timely early hits to cap the series with a 4-1 victory today at Royals Stadium.
After a 4-3 road trip to Detroit and Kansas City, the Orioles (50-51) next face the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays for three games at Memorial Stadium, beginning Monday night.
"This was a good weekend," said Orioles Manager Frank Robinson. "We're not at the top of our game, but we're playing well. Now we concentrate on Monday. It's not a do-or-die series, but they are very important games for us."
The Blue Jays (54-47) overtook visiting Texas today to remain four games ahead of Baltimore in the AL East.
Mitchell (3-3) baffled the Royals for 7 1/3 innings, yielding only four hits and one walk while striking out three. He has been one of the Orioles' most consistent starters since being called up from Class AAA Rochester on June 15, having now won three of his last four starts.
"He gave us a chance to win the ballgame, and that's all I can ask of a pitcher," Robinson said.
"I know if I'm not doing my job, I'm going to get sent back down to Triple A," Mitchell said.
Ballard came in after Kevin Seitzer's one-out single in the eighth and got out of the inning with no further trouble.
Olson pitched a flawless ninth to gain his 23rd save in 25 opportunities.
At 23 years 10 months, Olson also became the second youngest -- behind Terry Forster -- to reach 50 career saves.
The Orioles opened a 4-0 lead after three innings because they delivered clutch hits, which they hadn't been doing on this trip. They got nine hits in the first three innings against Tom Gordon (6-7), and five came with runners in scoring position.
"We knew we had to get to him early," said Cal Ripken, who went one for four. "If he gets into a groove, it could be a long, long day for us. Good pitchers like him get better and better as they go along."
The Orioles scored twice in the first. After Brady Anderson doubled on the game's second pitch, Sam Horn brought him home with a double that missed clearing the fence in right-center field by about two feet. Ripken's single scored Horn.
In the second, Bill Ripken singled and scored on Mike Devereaux's double -- which also just missed being a homer.
Three plays later left fielder Jeff Schulz saved three runs with the defensive play of the game. After Joe Orsulak and Horn had walked to fill the bases, Cal Ripken hit a sharp drive that Schulz caught with a jump at the warning track while falling into the wall.
In the third, Bill Ripken singled home Mickey Tettleton, who led off with a bloop double.
"We're getting big games from different people everyday," said Robinson. "And that's what it takes to put together a long run."
The Orioles batted .317 in this series, scoring 25 runs.
Nobody has done more than Anderson, who is 12 for 23 and has reached base in all seven of his games since coming off the disabled list July 20.
"Brady has been hitting the ball very well," Robinson said. "He needs to keep it up."
He's not the only one: Devereaux batted 11 for 26 with 10 RBI on this trip, Phil Bradley is nine for 20 in his last four games, and Bill Ripken was 11 for 22 on the trip.
"We're getting the big hits," Robinson said, "but more importantly, we're getting runners in position for us to get those big hits."
While the Orioles were thrashing Gordon, Mitchell was mowing down the Royals. He held them scoreless on two hits until the sixth, when Jim Eisenreich scored Gerald Perry on a groundout to second.
Perry had doubled down the right field line to lead off the inning and moved to third on George Brett's fly to center.
Robinson said he had some reservations about sending Mitchell, a sinker-ball specialist, out on Royals Stadium's artificial surface.
But Mitchell had no doubts: "If I'm throwing good sinkers, they shouldn't be driving it into the holes. It doesn't matter if it's turf or grass."
And it's not just hitting and pitching the Orioles are getting -- their defense has been suffocating.
Even with two errors in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader -- including Cal Ripken's streak breaker -- the Orioles have committed only three errors in their last 17 games and have the fewest miscues (50) in the major leagues. That puts them on a pace to break the record of 84 set by the Twins in 1988.
In addition, the Orioles are running down fly balls and preventing runners from taking extra bases.
"It seems like their defenders are all over the field," Royals Manager John Wathan said.
They also have developed a killer instinct.
"You have to go into each series thinking you're going to sweep," Robinson said. "And we have to begin with Monday. The only chance you have of sweeping is if you win the first one."
The Orioles are one game below .500, a point they haven't reached since June 12 -- when they were three games behind Toronto.
"It's important to us to get to .500," said Robinson. "Then you know you're on the plus side, where good things can happen to you."