Perhaps the single most important swing of the Baltimore Orioles' season thus far came on the first pitch in the bottom of the eighth inning tonight. It wasn't so much what that swing produced (a home run) or where the ball landed (some 15 rows up in the left field stands) that made it so important. What mattered was who hit it and what it did.
The homer was by Albert Belle, the Orioles' silent slugger, and all it did was tie the game, complete a comeback from a four-run deficit and set up the finale, a bases-loaded single by Charles Johnson in the bottom of the 10th that gave the Orioles a 6-5 victory at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, their sixth win in a row. Who scored the winning run? Belle, who led off the 10th with a single.
Johnson not only won the game with his bat -- he singled on a 2-2 sinker from Scott Service (3-1) -- but he also won it with his vaunted arm, picking off Joe Randa at second base with nobody out in the top of the 10th. The victory pulled the Orioles (27-36) within nine games of .500 for the first time since May 12.
"This was a big surge toward turning this around," Manager Ray Miller said. "We've been thumping teams lately, but to come back from down 5-1 and win, that's a big lift for everybody."
Belle's homer, his 11th of the year but only his second since May 16, sent the crowd of 41,377 into rapture, as if that feeling had been pent up for more than two months -- which is how long it has been, arguably, since Belle had hit a meaningful homer. Of his 10 previous homers this season, eight had come in the first four innings, and the other two were in the late innings of blowouts.
"I wanted to go out there and kiss him when the ball went out of the park," Miller said.
Belle had four hits tonight, tying a career high. In addition, Cal Ripken's sizzling month continued with another home run, his eighth of the season, and a single, raising his average to .336; and B.J. Surhoff extended his hitting streak to a career-high 16 games with a third-inning single.
But there could be no better news for the Orioles than the emergence of Belle, their cleanup hitter, $13 million slugger and, for better or worse, their focal point.
"When you get a guy like that in the middle of the lineup hot," said first baseman Will Clark, who singled during the Orioles' 10th-inning rally, "he can carry the team for a while, especially if you get guys hot with him."
Before tonight, a random list of players with as many or more extra-base hits than Belle would have included such nonluminaries as John Flaherty, Eli Marrero, Mark Loretta, the Royals' own Carlos Febles and both Alex Gonzalezes (Toronto's and Florida's).
"He's like anyone in here," Miller said. "You try so hard to pick up the slack, and when you're a top player, the pressure is ten-fold."
But something -- perhaps the Orioles' recent hot streak, or the fallout from last week's benching -- appears to have lighted a fire under Belle. He also drove in a run tonight in the first with a two-out single, although he came into the game hitting just .171 with runners in scoring position and two outs. And not only that: Belle also hustled into second when Royals center fielder Carlos Beltran missed the cutoff man. Though he ended up stranded there, Belle's hustle made an impression in the Orioles' dugout.
Belle also made the defensive play of the game -- a sliding, backhanded catch in right on a sinking line drive by Rey Sanchez with two on and two out in the second. The catch saved at least one run, two if it had gotten by him.
"It's going to happen for him," second baseman Delino DeShields said. "Keep watching."
Belle's homer took away a win from Chris Fussell, a former Orioles prospect, who was traded away for Jeff Conine this spring. Fussell allowed 11 base runners in six innings, but showed the kind of fortitude the Orioles suspected he lacked, consistently making big pitches.
Fussell outpitched his Orioles counterpart, right-hander Jason Johnson, whose night ended in the top of the third -- when two walks, three singles and a questionable safe call on a stolen base by Royals leadoff hitter Scott Pose put the Orioles in a 5-1 hole.
Johnson never firmly established the strike zone tonight. Even in retiring the Royals in order in the first, he went to a three-ball count twice. In the critical third inning, Johnson fell behind 2-0 four times, and those four batters reached on two walks and two hits.
In an ironic twist, Scott Kamieniecki came in from the bullpen to salvage the game for Johnson. It was Kamieniecki whose struggles last month opened the door for Johnson to join the starting rotation. Tonight, Kamieniecki redeemed himself, tossing 4 1/3 shutout innings and keeping the Orioles in the game.
Orioles Notes: Right-handed reliever Mike Fetters, who went on the disabled list June 7 with elbow pain, was found to have bone spurs in the elbow. Fetters, 34, will undergo surgery later this week in Los Angeles by physician Lewis Yocum and likely will be out six to eight weeks. . . .
Ripken's home run gave him 1,540 career RBI, moving him past Harry Heilmann and into a tie with Willie Stargell for 30th all-time. . . . Clark's 10th-inning single was his 2,000th career hit.
CAPTION: The point is moot: Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick beseeches umpire Dave Phillips to rethink decision to call Royals' Scott Pose safe in steal attempt.
CAPTION: O's catcher Charles Johnson's pickoff throw arrives in time for Mike Bordick to tag Royals' Joe Randa in 10th inning. Johnson also drove in winning run.