It is impossible to consider the Baltimore Orioles' current eight-game winning streak, their best stretch of baseball this season, without pondering the what-ifs. What if this refreshing infusion of youth had arrived earlier? What if the starting pitching had been this good in April? What if Cal Ripken had never been injured?
Tonight, with Mike Mussina on the mound for the first time in more than three weeks, with Ripken continuing his climb up the all-time charts and with rookies Jerry Hairston and Ryan Minor making impressive contributions, the Orioles thrashed the Oakland Athletics, 13-6, in front of 40,789 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
On a night when their roles appeared to have been reversed, the playoff-contending A's (80-65) fell three games behind Boston in the wild-card race, while the Orioles (69-76) extended their longest winning streak since a nine-gamer July 9-17, 1998, and pulled within seven games of .500 for the first time since June 24.
Ripken hit a three-run homer in the fifth, launching the Orioles' to a seven-run inning, and added a single in the sixth. The hits left Ripken 16 shy of 3,000 with 17 games remaining. Despite having roughly half his usual number of at-bats, Ripken's 18 homers are his most since 1996.
"When you swing the bat the way I have this season," Ripken said, "you'd love to be able to apply [the numbers] to a 600-at-bat season. But you shouldn't spend too much time thinking about it, because it is what it is."
Mussina (16-7), pitching for the first time since being struck on the right shoulder with a line drive Aug. 22, struck out six over five impressive innings, keeping alive his dim hopes for his first 20-win season. Orioles starters are 5-0 with a 2.12 earned run average during the winning streak.
"I did everything I was hoping I'd be able to do," Mussina said. "I was surprised by my velocity, and with my change-up and curve, which seemed to be good."
Despite the layoff, Mussina's command was as sharp as ever. He issued only one walk, and at one point threw first-pitch strikes to nine straight batters.
By the fifth inning, after the Orioles sent 11 men to the plate and scored seven runs against the A's bullpen -- keyed by Ripken's three-run homer and B.J. Surhoff's bases-loaded double -- there was no need to keep Mussina in the game. He left having thrown 88 pitches, about 13 more than he had intended.
"The toughest thing was sitting down between innings, then having to heat up again," Mussina said.
Minor, whose status as Ripken's heir apparent seemingly has been jeopardized by his recently disappointing offense, had a breakout game at the plate, doubling in the Orioles' first run with a rocket to left in the second inning, and later scoring on Mike Bordick's bases-loaded triple, and adding an opposite-field single and a walk.
Minor, whose playing time has dried up since Ripken's return Sept. 1, came into the game hitting just .045 (1 for 22) since Aug. 23, but had made just once plate appearance since Sept. 4. But after a series of encouraging sessions with hitting coach Terry Crowley, who is trying to get Minor to get down on his longish swing, Minor was inserted into the lineup today at first base.
Hairston's energizing presence in the lineup translated tonight into a walk, two singles, a double and two runs. Veteran catcher Charles Johnson reached base five times with four hits and a walk, as the Orioles pounded former teammate Mike Oquist (9-10) and the A's normally reliable bullpen.
"The speed and enthusiasm of the younger guys," said Manager Ray Miller, "has carried over."
Orioles Notes: Rookie center fielder Eugene Kingsale, who is getting an early audition for next year's starting job, had a difficult night. Kingsale, 23, went 0 for 4 with a strikeout, two double-play grounders and a sacrifice fly. He also turned Matt Stairs's liner in the left field gap in the second inning into a triple when he was unable to cut off the ball despite a sliding try. . . .
In perhaps another sign as to where Calvin Pickering stands, the rookie first baseman was passed over for tonight's start in favor of Minor. Pickering has made just one start since being called up Sept. 7. . . .
Thursday's 3:05 p.m. game appears to be in jeopardy because of Hurricane Floyd, but no contingency plan had been made as of tonight. . . . Lefty Matt Riley makes his Camden Yards debut Wednesday night for the Orioles.