To call the moment priceless would be hyperbole. Better to say it was worth $65 million. That is what the Baltimore Orioles spent this winter to sign free agent Albert Belle, just for moments like this: Bottom of the eighth, two runners on, trailing their division rivals by a run in their biggest game so far this year. Boom.
And as the ball sailed over the wall in left-center, sending the Orioles to a 5-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox, the crowd of 43,329 exploded. Tonight marked the start of 16 straight games for the Orioles against the three teams ahead of them in the American League East, and if this game was any indication, it could be an interesting ride.
It was the Orioles' fourth straight victory, their 11th in 12 games and it pulled them within five games of .500 for the first time since April 17.
"That was fun to watch," said Manager Ray Miller. "Our offense is as good as anybody's right now. . . . It was a big game, but every game is going to be tough now."
The winning rally included a bloop single by Brady Anderson and a ground-ball single by Mike Bordick after he twice failed to get down a sacrifice bunt -- the kind of breaks that good teams seem to get.
B.J. Surhoff went 0 for 3 to end his career-high 21-game hitting streak, but lifted a bases-loaded sacrifice fly off Mark Guthrie to pull the Orioles to 3-2.
That set the stage for Belle. Red Sox Manager Jimy Williams brought in John Wasdin to face Belle, who was 2 for 12 in his career against the right-hander. Belle fouled off two pitches and took an outside fastball before unloading on a 1-2 fastball on the outside half of the plate.
Arthur Rhodes (3-2) got the last two outs of the eighth inning in relief of Sidney Ponson to get the victory. Mike Timlin overpowered the bottom of the Red Sox' order in the ninth inning for his ninth save.
Although the Orioles are getting unprecedented production from their entire lineup, Belle is its chief engine. The club's sudden rise has coincided with a major power surge from Belle. He is hitting .395 with four homers in 10 games since being benched following a heated exchange with Miller in the dugout in Florida.
"He has had a lot better passes at the ball than he did earlier in the season," said teammate Will Clark. "He's catching on. Whenever you get the middle of the lineup hot, it accounts for a lot of production."
For the first two months of the season, Belle's lack of production created a vacuum in the middle of the order. It was where rallies came to die. Now, Belle is right in the middle of the bashing.
"It's the whole thing," Miller said. "When the pitching is not good and puts you behind in every game, people focus on something to turn it around, and obviously the focus is going to be on the guy making the most money in the middle of the lineup."
For seven innings, the Orioles seemed helpless against starter Pat Rapp. He had not pitched past the sixth inning since April 18 and had not recorded a win since May 21. The Red Sox came into the game 3-9 in games he has started. Tonight, however, he managed to toss 6 1/3 innings of three-hit ball with a mixture of craftiness and luck.
Rapp walked six batters and allowed at least one base runner in every inning, but benefited from three double plays, including a bizarre, disputed one in the second that cost the Orioles a run.
After Cal Ripken's RBI double -- a looping liner that fell between left fielder Troy O'Leary and center fielder Darrin Lewis -- gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead and moved Will Clark to third base, rookie Jerry Hairston lifted a fly ball to shallow left. Clark hustled home on the apparent sacrifice fly, but the Red Sox appealed at third base, and umpire Marty Foster ruled Clark had left early -- although television replays indicated he did not.
The Orioles also hit several line drives directly at fielders. The most damaging was off the bat of pinch hitter Jeff Conine against Kirk Bullinger, after Rapp was lifted with one out in the seventh. Conine's liner went right back to Bullinger, who threw to second, easily doubling off Clark.
For the sixth time in his last seven starts, Ponson pitched past the seventh inning and gave up three or fewer runs. But on a night he needed to be near perfect, he gave up leadoff homers to Jason Varitek in the fifth inning and O'Leary in the seventh, the latter landing on Eutaw Street beyond the right field wall.
CAPTION: Right fielder Albert Belle comes up short trying for Darren Lewis's single in the seventh, but goes long in the eighth.