The Baltimore Orioles entered this three-game series against the Texas Rangers the way a lost soul enters an oracle, looking for a revelation, a sign to point them in the right direction. But at a time when every game changes the Orioles' dynamic slightly, tonight's 8-6 loss to the Texas Rangers sent mixed signals.
On the one hand, in the opener of what General Manager Frank Wren termed a critical series as the organization contemplates Saturday's trade deadline, the Orioles (45-54) lost a game that they should have won, snapping their six-game winning streak.
On the other hand, on a night when ace Mike Mussina suffered a rare beating, the Orioles battled back from a 7-2 deficit to give themselves a chance to win in the late innings. They brought the potential go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth and the tying run to the plate in the ninth.
Brady Anderson's second home run of the game, a blast off closer John Wetteland to lead off the ninth, pulled the Orioles to within two runs. Before tonight, Anderson hadn't homered since June 20.
Albert Belle, whose three-homer performance Sunday led to one of the Orioles' most stirring victories of the season, homered again tonight in the first inning, his seventh in his last 10 games. But representing the potential tying run in the ninth against Wetteland, Belle struck out chasing a slider.
Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken, who came into the game with 399 career homers, went 0 for 3 with a walk.
With trade rumors swirling around them, the Orioles are stuck between rebuilding for next season and trying to better themselves for a long-shot stretch run. Tonight's loss wasted a chance to pick up a game on wild card-leading Toronto, whom the Orioles still trail by nine games.
On a normal night, Mussina (13-5) might not have needed any more than the three runs of support the Orioles gave him in the first five innings. But tonight he staggered to his shortest outing since April 21, when he gave up 10 earned runs in 3 2/3 innings at Tampa Bay.
"Just bad pitching," Mussina said. "I didn't even give us a chance. The guys got us a lead [in the first inning] and I didn't pitch well enough to hold on."
A two-run homer by light-hitting second baseman Luis Alicea -- a last-second lineup addition when Juan Gonzalez (wrist) was scratched -- keyed the Rangers' four-run second inning. The other two runs scored on Rusty Greer's two-out double to right, which Belle might have had a chance to catch but he jumped a few feet short of the wall and missed.
Belle "didn't know where the ball was. The ball was carrying pretty good out there," said Manager Ray Miller. "For the most part, Albert has done a pretty good job out there. He's here to pound the ball. He's made most of the routine plays, and I wouldn't call that one routine."
Tonight's dud by Mussina seemed to come out of nowhere. In his past three starts he had gone 3-0 with 25 strikeouts against only five walks. With Boston ace Pedro Martinez's runaway campaign slowing down because of shoulder problems, Mussina was poised to jump into Cy Young Award consideration.
But it was clear from the start this wasn't the same Mussina who came into the game 4-0 with a 2.30 ERA in July. Displaying an uncharacteristic lack of command, he walked the leadoff man in both the first two innings, fell behind 2-0 to five of the first 10 batters he faced and threw first-pitch strikes to only nine of 27 batters.
"It was something mechanical. He didn't seem comfortable," Miller said. "It's real unusual for Moose to be ball-one on so many people."
Ultimately, it was a 2-0 count that set up the game's biggest hit and ended Mussina's night. With the Rangers leading 5-2 in the fifth, Mussina gave up a leadoff single to Todd Zeile and a double to Lee Stevens, but seemed to be on the verge of an escape when he got Ruben Mateo to bounce back to the mound and Alicea to ground out sharply to second.
However, Mussina fell behind 2-0 to Royce Clayton and served up a fastball that Clayton crushed to right-center for a two-run triple.
The 7-2 cushion became crucial because Rangers starter Aaron Sele (10-6) constantly put himself in danger of losing his hold on the game, only to pitch his way out of trouble. The Orioles stranded four runners in scoring position in the first five innings.
Designated hitter Harold Baines doubled twice tonight, but in one of the game's biggest at-bats he struck out on a high fastball from Sele with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth.
Orioles Notes: While the Orioles insist they are not seeking to downsize their expensive roster, that hasn't stopped plundering clubs from asking. The Atlanta Braves have inquired about shortstop Mike Bordick and first baseman Clark.
And although the Orioles aren't yet willing to make trades to help teams they are chasing, the Yankees called recently to reiterate their interest in acquiring one of the Orioles' left-handers -- either Arthur Rhodes (as long as the Orioles stop asking for prized shortstop prospect Alfonso Soriano) or Jesse Orosco.