At some point tonight -- perhaps when Mike Mussina ripped a two-run single through the left side of the infield, looking for all the world like Wade Boggs in his prime, or perhaps when Cal Ripken drilled his sixth hit of the night, drawing another standing ovation -- this game stopped being about a victory, and became something bigger.
It became a statement. It became a record-book rewrite. It became another transcendent Cal Moment. It became a get-well card from the Orioles to themselves.
This stunning 22-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves in front of 45,738 at Turner Field was all of that and then some. The Orioles set club records for runs in a game and margin of victory, and tied the record for extra-base hits (11); and Ripken, looking like the Ripken of 1985, could not make an out.
"This was one of those nights you wish you could duplicate," Ripken said. "But it's probably not going to happen."
The Orioles came here a team in turmoil and left late tonight a juggernaut. They have won four straight games, and coupled with Tampa Bay's loss earlier today found themselves out of the American League East cellar for the first time since April 17.
"We've all worked very, very hard," Manager Ray Miller said. "We've had some setbacks. But the team seems to be on a roll. . . . Everybody's feeling good about themselves. We've been on the other end of a few of these."
The night began as a marquee pitching matchup between Mussina and Braves power-arm John Smoltz. It ended as a lopsided bloodbath the likes of which the Orioles franchise had never seen. By then, those still watching on television must have wondered which was the last-place team racked with turmoil and which was the first-place team loaded with aces.
Begin with Ripken, 38, who had two homers, three singles and a double and raised his batting average from .298 to .328. It was the first six-hit game in Orioles history.
"It's kind of nice at 38," Ripken said, "to have a first."
"It makes his bio a little longer," Miller said. "Because he has pages full of things nobody has ever done."
In the sixth inning, after Ripken's fourth hit, Miller asked him if he wanted to sit the rest out, with the Orioles comfortably ahead. Ripken wanted to stay in. On his fifth and sixth hits, what was left of the crowd rose and applauded Ripken.
"After a while, people realized, `We're seeing something special,' " Miller said. "I just about had tears in my eyes when he got that sixth hit."
Will Clark had three doubles and a homer. B.J. Surhoff had two hits, extending his hitting streak to 14 games. Albert Belle had three hits, including one double, his first extra-base hit since June 4. Charles Johnson hit his 12th homer. Even Mussina had a single, a double and three RBI.
"In a game like this, I don't want to say it's like a fever," Clark said. "But if you stand next to somebody, you're going to catch it."
Absurd as it sounds, in the bigger picture, the roots of the Orioles' recent rise lie in their starting pitching. Over their last eight games, Orioles starters are 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA. Tonight, Mussina (8-3) gave the Orioles seven brilliant innings -- needing only 82 pitches -- and they gave him a 19-run cushion with which to work.
After scoring a total of four runs in Mussina's last three starts, the Orioles sent his run-support numbers through the roof.
For the second game in a row, the Orioles (25-36) jumped all over the Braves in the first. On Saturday, Brady Anderson, Mike Bordick and Clark hit homers off Kevin Millwood; tonight, Belle had an RBI single, Clark drove an RBI double to right-center and Ripken hit a three-run homer just inside the left-field foul pole, giving the Orioles an early 5-0 lead.
By the third, after Belle and Clark doubled and Ripken singled sharply to right, Smoltz's night was over, and so was the marquee pitching matchup. Mussina vs. Justin Speier just didn't have the same ring.
Rarely do Braves starting pitchers get treated as roughly as they were in this series. Greg Maddux, Millwood and Smoltz (7-2) were all tagged with losses and gave up a combined 15 earned runs in 14 1/3 innings (a 9.41 ERA).
Chicks might dig the long ball, as the current commercial starring a bat-wielding Maddux and Tom Glavine boasts, but this wasn't what they had in mind.
By the fifth, when Mussina smoked an RBI double over Ryan Klesko's head in left when the corner infielders were charging for a bunt, the Orioles' offensive explosion officially reached the ridiculous stage. Johnson, who had walked to lead off the inning, huffed around third with the Orioles' 12th run.
Of course, the Orioles were barely halfway done. They would score three more in the sixth, four more in the seventh, when they batted around on reliever Russ Springer, and two more in the ninth.
By that point, every Orioles starter had at least one hit. But only one of them had six.
Ripken is "absolutely amazing," Clark said. "People write him off all the time, saying he should retire, that he should sit down. And he always comes out and proves them wrong. He still has not only the desire to play, but the talent and knowledge."
Records and other superlatives from the Orioles' 22-1 victory over the Braves:
Cal Ripken (6 for 6, six RBI) had the first six-hit game in Orioles history. His last five-hit game was May 5, 1985, against the Twins. He also set a career high by scoring five runs.
The Orioles' 22 runs set a franchise record. The previous record of 19 was set on Aug. 28, 1967, against the Indians.
Ripken's two home runs gave him 391 for his career, moving him past Graig Nettles and Johnny Bench into 32nd place all-time. It was Ripken's first two-homer game since Sept. 15, 1996.
Mike Mussina's double in the fifth inning marked the first extra-base hit by an Orioles pitcher since Roric Harrison on Oct. 3, 1972. Mussina finished 2 for 5.
Every player in the starting lineup had a hit. Every player in the starting lineup scored a run, except Brady Anderson.
The Braves surrendered their most runs since a 23-8 loss to the Giants on June 8, 1990. It was the most lopsided defeat since the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1966 and fell just short of the most lopsided loss in team history -- Boston's 26-3 loss to Cincinnati on June 4, 1911.
Reliever Rocky Coppinger singled in the ninth inning in his first career at-bat.
The Orioles completed their first three-game sweep on the road since July 28-30 of last season against the Tigers.
Data: Orioles vs. Kansas City Royals, today and Tuesday at 7:35 p.m., Wednesday at 3:05 p.m.
Tickets: 10,000 remaining for today, 9,000 for Tuesday, 8,000 for Wednesday.
TV: HTS, all three games.
Radio: WTOP-1500, WBAL-1090, WTOP-FM-107.7 and WMJS-FM-92.7.
Records: Orioles 25-36; Royals 26-34.
Pitchers: Today -- Orioles RHP Scott Erickson (2-8, 6.69 ERA) vs. RHP Kevin Appier (6-4, 4.39); Tuesday -- Orioles RHP Jason Johnson (0-1, 7.47) vs. RHP Chris Fussell (0-3, 6.23); Wednesday -- Orioles RHP Sidney Ponson (6-4, 3.99) vs. RHP Jose Rosado (4-5, 2.91).
CAPTION: Braves starter John Smoltz is finished after allowing seven runs on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings. Orioles struck for five runs in first inning.
CAPTION: Cal Ripken, left, accepts congratulations from first-base coach Marv Foley in the ninth inning after getting his sixth hit, setting an Orioles record.
CAPTION: Mike Mussina improves to 8-3 and lowers his ERA to 3.80; he allowed 5 hits in 7 innings. At bat, he went 2 for 5 with 3 RBI.
CAPTION: Bret Boone's body language -- and the plethora of numbers on the Orioles' side of the scoreboard -- sum up Baltimore's run bonanza.