The Baltimore Orioles watched 25-year-old right-hander Jason Johnson turn in a third straight first-rate performance. Then they turned a three-run lead over to their bullpen in the seventh inning and began chewing their nails.
And they blew it again. Former Oriole Willie Greene's two-run home run off rookie reliever Gabe Molina in the top of the ninth inning completed yet another collapse and gave the Toronto Blue Jays a 7-6 victory tonight in front of 42,275 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Molina (0-1) was the third and final reliever used by Orioles Manager Ray Miller in the final three innings. Miller watched as his team blew its league-leading 20th save opportunity, allowing the Blue Jays to score two runs apiece in the eighth and ninth innings.
In a season of crushing defeats, this was simply one more. Having lost 12 times in their last 15 games, the Orioles (34-49) have again fallen 15 games below .500. They were loudly booed several times tonight, especially in the ninth when Molina gave up the lead, and then in the bottom of the inning when Rich Amaral was thrown out attempting to steal second base with one out.
Molina entered the game with two outs in the top of the eighth inning. The Orioles led 6-3, but the Blue Jays (44-42) had the bases loaded. He promptly surrendered Tony Batista's two-run single, but struck out Jacob Brumfield to end the inning.
Miller sent him back out for the ninth, and afterward was almost defiant in defending his move. His $16 million closer, Mike Timlin, leads the American League in blown saves, and his lefty setup man, Arthur Rhodes, has complained about Miller's use of him.
So Miller turned to Molina, 23, who will be tried as the closer despite the fact that tonight was just his eighth appearance in the major leagues. "I'm not bailing out on anyone," Miller said, "but I'm going to give this kid a chance. He throws strikes, and that's a breath of fresh air. I just hope he handles a night like this alright."
Afterward, Molina calmly dissected his performance. He had gotten Blue Jays second baseman Homer Bush on a nice play by third baseman Cal Ripken to open the ninth. Shannon Stewart followed with a single, and with a 1-2 count on Greene, Molina threw a breaking pitch that stayed too high in the strike zone.
"He hung one pitch," Miller said. "It was the right pitch. He just hung it."
Molina shrugged off the disappointment, saying: "I don't even think it was a real bad pitch. I got ahead in the count and he got a pitch he could handle. I hung a slider a little bit. It was the right pitch to throw. I can't second-guess myself on that. I was excited to be out there and have a chance to close it down."
Asked how he would deal with the sudden disappointment that comes with being a closer, he said: "I have to shake it off. It's a disappointing loss, but I still have to come back tomorrow and try to do my job."
Greene's home run spoiled a night when the Orioles again did a lot of things right. Johnson allowed three hits and two earned runs in six innings, showing the Orioles once more that he is on his way to being a quality major league pitcher. He is winless in his last three starts, but has compiled a respectable 3.15 ERA.
With a 92 mph fastball and a knee-buckling curveball, Johnson has combined with Sidney Ponson to give the Orioles a pair of talented young starters in a rotation that was the worst in baseball during the opening month of the season. Midway through General Manager Frank Wren's first year on the job, his acquisition of Johnson from Tampa Bay for two minor leaguers looks like a steal.
"Jason is going to be good," Miller said. "He's got a chance. He's not afraid to pitch inside and he goes after people."
The Orioles also wasted three hits by Ripken, including a two-run home run that gave them a 5-3 lead in the fourth inning. Brady Anderson, B.J. Surhoff and Jeff Conine had two hits apiece, and Harold Baines hit his 18th homer.
Johnson allowed three runs in the first inning thanks, in part, to a pair of errors by first baseman Conine. He shut out the Blue Jays over the next five innings, and with his pitch count at 115, Miller turned to his bullpen in the seventh. Scott Kamieniecki pitched a scoreless seventh, but sandwiched two walks around two strikeouts in the top of the eighth. Left-hander Jesse Orosco walked Darrin Fletcher to load the bases, and needing four outs, Miller went for Molina.
Orioles Notes: Backup catcher Lenny Webster returned from his rehabilitation stint in Rochester, and apparently is on the verge of being traded. Pittsburgh is one of several teams interested in Webster, according to sources. . . . The Orioles signed left-handed pitcher Scott Rice, whom the team chose 44th overall in the June draft. Rice is scheduled to report to Sarasota of the Gulf Coast League.
CAPTION: Brady Anderson hunches over after being forced out on double play. Anderson was also robbed of a home run by Jacob Brumfield in first.