OAKLAND, AUG. 8 -- Ben McDon-ald is blessed. What other explanation can there be for the Baltimore Orioles' striking turnabout in fortune today that coincided with trotting out the precocious 22-year-old rookie to the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum mound?

McDonald subdued the imposing Oakland Athletics for the better part of six innings, putting the Orioles on their way to a 4-1 victory here before 30,739. The triumph broke a two-game losing streak and reversed a sense of doom that had begun to settle over the team's clubhouse the past two days.

But that was only a piece to a puzzling day saturated with bizarre developments. The Orioles won on an afternoon when their injury-depleted lineup included four players -- Steve Finley, Tim Hulett, Bob Melvin and just-recalled Jeff McKnight -- who began the game with a combined six home runs and 56 RBI.

They won partly because reliever Jeff Ballard got four outs with three pitches, including his second triple play in two years to kill a rally in the seventh inning. The Orioles' day also included Mickey Tettleton's first regular season appearance at first base -- that after Tettleton and Sam Horn had combined on an eighth-inning strikeout when Tettleton was summoned as a pinch hitter after Horn's leg cramp produced an animated dispute between Baltimore Manager Frank Robinson and the umpires.

The first 11 pitches thrown to McKnight, a 27-year-old rookie with three big league base hits, were balls. And the game's key blows came off the bat of catcher Melvin, who was two for his previous 21 and was hitting .162 in his last 24 games.

"It was just one of those good days," Ballard said. "It's about time some good things happened to us."

This nine-day road trip began in a foreboding manner for the Orioles, who lost a one-run game here Tuesday and watched their recent rash of injuries continue. But they improved to 54-55 today with their third victory in eight games against the A's this year, moving within 5 1/2 games of first-place Boston in the American League East -- pending the Red Sox' game tonight at California.

Oakland is 69-42, its AL West advantage holding at three games with Chicago's loss tonight at Kansas City. The A's could only shake their heads in frustrated bewilderment afterward.

"I guess they were due for some good luck," Manager Tony La Russa said. "I think they made their luck, with some good pitching and heads-up defense. . . . You just hope the breaks even out eventually."

The good pitching began with McDonald (4-0), who became the Orioles' first pitcher to win his first four major league starts. Combined with a victory last season, the strapping right-hander also equaled the club record for consecutive wins at the start of a career. Jerry Walker also had five, but they were spread over three seasons (1957-59) and 27 games.

McDonald held the A's hitless over the first 4 1/3 innings, allowing just two walks until Terry Steinbach's single. McDonald alternately whizzed fastballs past the defending world champions and beguiled them with snapping curves, leaving in the sixth only after he tired while working on two days' rest; his outing Sunday against Kansas City was rained out in the first inning.

"I was throwing real hard today," said McDonald, who threw 88 pitches. "I had good stuff, maybe a little too good to control it real well. I had trouble keeping the curve in the strike zone. . . . This is a team where you have to bear down against every hitter, and that takes a lot out of you."

Weeks ago, when things appeared gloomy for the Orioles, they sought consolation by thinking about a future built around McDonald. Now when the club is in a squeeze, relief comes more straightforwardly -- by simply pointing him toward the middle of the infield. McDonald's last three wins have followed Orioles defeats, and his earned run average is 1.43.

"McDonald is not just a rookie," Robinson said. "He's an exceptional rookie."

And he has learned to play baseball's mind games too. Royals first baseman George Brett showered him with praise following McDonald's second win, then homered off him in the washed-away first inning Sunday. So when word that La Russa called him "a very special pitcher" made its way to the Orioles clubhouse today, McDonald responded: "That's nice of him to say, but I've heard that before."

While McDonald was shutting down the A's, the Orioles battered Oakland starter Scott Sanderson (11-7) en route to a 4-0 lead.

Three runs came in the fourth on Melvin's one-out, run-scoring single past a drawn-in infield and Brady Anderson's two-out, two-run double.

The advantage grew to 4-0 in the fifth on Melvin's RBI single after Sanderson had walked Joe Orsulak and Hulett to load the bases.

"I couldn't get the ball where I wanted it, and I ended up having to put it right down the middle just to make sure it would get over," Sanderson said.

Robinson made a potentially haunting move when he replaced McDonald in the sixth after three singles grounded through the infield with one out produced Oakland's only run. Mark Williamson escaped from that two-on, one-out jam without further damage, but walked the first two batters in the seventh to bring on Ballard.

With the runners moving, his first pitch to Willie Randolph was lined back up the middle. Ballard reacted quickly to snare the shot, then flipped the ball to shortstop Cal Ripken for the out at second; Ripken easily completed the 10th triple play in Orioles history and the first the A's have hit into since this date 13 years ago.

"You just see the ball and react," said Ballard, who got New York's Steve Balboni to line into a triple play last season. "Actually, it was my third. I had one in college too. . . . I told Al {Jackson, the Orioles pitching coach} I need a day off after that workout."

The final intrigue came in the Orioles eighth, when Robinson and home plate umpire Derryl Cousins feuded because Cousins was trying to hurry Horn into the batter's box. Robinson ended up calling on Tettleton, who took the final strike of the inning-ending strikeout.

Gregg Olson ended matters more routinely, however, pitching 1 2/3 innings for his 26th save.

Said Olson: "It was a weird day. I was almost afraid to go out there."