It was hard to find fault with the motives of Baltimore Orioles Manager Ray Miller tonight, trying to squeeze an extra inning out of Mike Mussina in hopes of getting the Orioles' ace a well-deserved victory. It was the eighth inning, the Orioles were trailing the Detroit Tigers by one, and Mussina already had been victimized too many times this season by his leaky bullpen and streaky offense.
But the right move for Mussina turned out to be the wrong move for the Orioles, because Mussina gave up back-to-back homers on back-to-back pitches in the eighth, sending the Orioles to a 4-3 loss in front of 41,708 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Orioles catcher Charles Johnson hit a two-run homer off Tigers starter Dave Mlicki in the bottom of the ninth to pull the Orioles within one, but that only served to make those back-to-back homers by Juan Encarnacion and Frank Catalanotto in the eighth appear even bigger.
"Ray wanted to give him a chance to close out the eighth and let us try to score some runs and get [Mussina] the win," Johnson said. "He deserved to win."
At one point this season, Mussina (13-7) seemed a near lock to notch the first 20-win season of his career. But a handful of victories fell victim to blown saves, and lately the Orioles' offense has stopped producing for him. In Mussina's last six losses, the Orioles have scored a total of 14 runs, including three one-run efforts.
Mussina left without speaking to reporters tonight.
"I've been here three years," Miller said. "And it always seems like whenever [Mussina] gets in position to pile up some victories, our offense dries up. I don't know what it is."
The Orioles were held to one run through the first eight innings by Mlicki (6-10), who was helped by a young, rangy defense that turned several Orioles hits into outs, including several nice plays by second baseman Damion Easley.
Clearly, Miller tried to do everything he could to get Mussina his 14th victory tonight. The Orioles' mostly slow and aging offense doesn't afford Miller much opportunity to manage aggressively and feel comfortable doing so. But in the fifth, trailing 1-0, Miller used his speediest players to manufacture a run.
Second baseman Delino DeShields led off the inning with a sharp single to center. After Ryan Minor failed to get down a sacrifice bunt and struck out, Miller put on a hit-and-run with Brady Anderson at the plate, and Anderson lined a single to right, with DeShields scooting easily to third.
Tigers rookie center fielder Kimera Bartee made a spectacular diving catch of Mike Bordick's sinking liner, but it was still enough to score DeShields from third and tie the game at 1.
An inning later Miller got even more aggressive, sending Will Clark on a hit-and-run with two outs and Johnson at the plate -- and Clark slid in safely with a stolen base when Johnson swung and missed. Johnson flied out to the warning track in right-center to end the inning.
Mussina struck out the side in the first inning, at one point throwing 13 consecutive strikes, and was working on a three-hit shutout until the top of the fifth, when Luis Polonia lined a one-out single, moved to second on Brad Ausmus's chopper to shortstop and scored on Easley's single to left.
Mussina opened the seventh by giving up a sharp single to center by Bartee, who was moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Polonia. Ausmus then hit a line drive down the third-base line. If Minor were 6 feet 8 instead of 6-7, he might have been able to snare the liner to third. Instead, it glanced off the tip of his glove and went into left field for an RBI double, giving the Tigers a 2-1 lead.
Miller sent Mussina back out for the eighth even though Mussina had thrown 109 pitches to that point. After the game, Miller said he wasn't sure whether he would have let Mussina pitch the eighth had the Orioles been winning.
"Obviously, he must have tired late there," Miller said. "I feel bad. He had real good stuff, and we couldn't give him any runs."
"He still had good enough stuff [to start the eighth]," said Johnson. "He's had some tough losses. When you see your pitcher pitching his butt off like that, and we're not scoring any runs, it's difficult."