While Johnny Damon, the Kansas City Royals' young left fielder, circled the bases in the third inning tonight as if chased by the hounds of Hades, the Baltimore Orioles' defense was going about things at a far more leisurely pace, as might befit a rich, tired ballclub miles from contention.

The shockingly easy inside-the-park home run, accomplished through a mixture of Damon's sheer effort and the Orioles' sheer lack of it, launched the Royals to a bizarre 8-6 victory in front of 12,033 at Kauffman Stadium. Royals closer Jeff Montgomery put a historic end to the proceedings, placing the potential tying runs on base before retiring Albert Belle on a ground ball for the 300th save of his career.

Even though the Royals' bench committed a major blunder of its own that almost cost the team the game -- making a key pitching change in the eighth before an Orioles pinch hitter was announced -- the Orioles' defensive breakdown on Damon's homer stood out as the key play in the game, demonstrating many of the reasons why the Orioles are where they are, which is to say 12 games below .500 with about five long weeks left.

For starters, Orioles pitcher Doug Linton, a 34-year-old journeyman making his second start since being recalled, served up a juicy 2-2 pitch that Damon smashed down the right field line. Linton was pitching on three days' rest.

"I was more upset with the pitch I made," Linton said. "It wasn't a quality pitch."

Belle, who turned 33 today, gave pursuit on Damon's drive, jumping at the wall but coming up short. As the ball began rolling back to the infield, Belle at first jogged after it -- either because he thought it was a home run -- replays later showed it hit the foul pole a few feet above the wall -- or because he expected second baseman Delino DeShields to be backing up the play.

In any case, first-base umpire Larry McCoy signaled fair ball, but DeShields did not back up the play, so Belle was forced to hit the accelerator in an attempt to keep Damon from scoring. Belle eventually retrieved the ball in shallow right, but his throw was up the first-base line, and Damon slid home safely.

"You can't stand on the infield and watch," said Orioles Manager Ray Miller, a thinly veiled stab at DeShields. "I admit it was a freak play, but it's no excuse. He has nowhere else to be. Albert was halfway to first base when he picked it up."

"I didn't realize it had bounced out that far," said DeShields. "I just got caught. . . . It was one run. We didn't lose by one run."

In the aftermath, Damon dusted himself off and celebrated with his teammates, Belle and DeShields stared at each other gloomily, and Royals Manager Tony Muser got himself ejected for arguing that Damon's ball was a home run to begin with.

After the Damon debacle, Linton's night began to unravel. He fell behind six of his seven batters in the fourth inning, giving up a three-run homer to Joe Randa, who had four RBI for the night. "For me to be effective, I have to throw strikes," Linton said. "And I didn't."

"Our starter," Miller said, "didn't have it."

Damon's homer appeared to be merely the start of a blowout, until things began to get interesting in the eighth. Trailing 6-1, Orioles designated hitter Harold Baines drove in a run on a bases-loaded grounder, and Jeff Conine brought in another on a walk -- both off Royals left-handed reliever Alvin Morman. Miller then sent Rich Amaral to the on-deck circle to pinch-hit for DeShields.

Royals pitching coach Mark Wiley, substituting for the ejected Muser, immediately countered by bringing in right-hander Brad Rigby. The only problem was, Amaral had never been announced, so Miller reversed himself and sent DeShields back to the plate. DeShields brought in a run with a fielder's choice, and another run scored on a throwing error by second baseman Steve Scarsone, making it a 6-5 game.

A pair of Royals runs off the Orioles' bullpen in the bottom of the eighth made it 8-5, and a solo homer in the ninth by Orioles backup catcher Mike Figga -- the first of his major league career -- became a footnote to one of the strangest games the Orioles have played this season.