The Baltimore Orioles arrived today at a critical intersection of their season, and powered through it with one of their gutsiest wins. Today's short-handed 8-4 victory over the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park marked both the end of the Orioles' most grueling stretch of games and travel this season and the beginning of the most important week of the season to date.
Playing with a bullpen depleted by Saturday night's 11-inning victory and without injured second baseman Delino DeShields, the Orioles hit four home runs -- giving them 11 in the four-game series -- and held on behind starter Jason Johnson and relievers Doug Johns and Mike Timlin.
"They're a hot club," White Sox Manager Jerry Manuel said. "They've got a number of hitters where if one gets hot, he can carry the team, and if they all get hot, they're tough to stop. It's tough to compete when players of that caliber get hot."
The victory, the Orioles' 10th in their last 11 games, gave them their third straight series victory, brought them within six games of .500 for the first time in six weeks and ended a stretch in which they played 19 out of 25 games on the road. The Orioles (31-37) went 15-10 in that stretch, and in the process began salvaging their season.
Awaiting them this week at Camden Yards are three-game series against division rivals Boston and New York, who have been waging a season-long battle for first place in the American League East while the Orioles have been struggling just to stay out of the cellar. Baltimore will start the homestand without DeShields, who has a strained right hamstring and likely is headed for the disabled list.
When the Orioles arrived at Comiskey this morning, they were down to two fresh relievers -- Johns and Rocky Coppinger -- and a handful of others with a half-tank of fuel or less, the result of Saturday night's 11-9 victory in which Baltimore used five relievers for a total of 5 1/3 innings.
But the Orioles took an early lead against White Sox starter James Baldwin (3-7) on a two-run homer in the first by B.J. Surhoff, who extended his career-high hitting streak to 21 games, and a three-run third inning, keyed by a two-run single by Harold Baines. Brady Anderson, Baines and Albert Belle added solo homers, all of which answered White Sox runs.
"Today was definitely big," first baseman Will Clark said. "To battle all night the way we did last night and then come out today and pick up some quick runs early, that took some pressure off. And we kept going out and finding a way to put runs on the board."
Neither sharp nor overpowering, Johnson (1-1) gave up eight hits, including three doubles and a homer, and walked three, needing 120 pitches to slog through 5 2/3 innings. But he gave the Orioles what they desperately needed -- innings -- and was rewarded with his first victory as an Oriole and only the third of his career.
"I knew we used most of the bullpen yesterday," Johnson said. "So I knew I had to go at least six [innings]. I didn't quite make it to six, but I tried to do as much as I could. I'm happy with the way I threw. Today was the best I've felt all year."
Johns gave the Orioles 2 2/3 scoreless innings, and Timlin, coming off a 40-pitch effort the night before, retired the last two batters, ending the game by striking out Frank Thomas with two runners on base. Timlin, who was the team's closer before losing the job last month, got his eighth save -- but first since May 27.
"I just did the job they called me to do," said Timlin, who lost the closer's job after blowing three saves in four chances in late May. "I'm not throwing any better than I was then. Things are just happening differently. It's just a positive time."
How did the Orioles' turnaround happen? Is it coincidence that their 10-1 run began the same night Belle and Manager Ray Miller had a spat in the Orioles' dugout in Florida?
The Orioles prefer to look at it in simpler terms: pitching, hitting, defense. An 8-1 record and 3.17 earned run average by starting pitchers in the last 15 games. A .320 batting average in June. Ten errorless games out of 11.
"We have some very good teams coming in," Miller said. "But our team is going in thinking, no matter what, we can get through this. That's a step in the right direction."
CAPTION: B.J. Surhoff is congratulated by coach Sam Perlozzo after two-run homer, which extended hitting streak to 21 games in Orioles' 10th win in 11 games.