Nothing could prevent cold reality from scoffing at the Baltimore Orioles from the out-of-town scoreboard in right field tonight--not a 5-4 victory over the Anaheim Angels, the Orioles' 11th in a row, not a game-winning homer by pinch hitter Derrick May, not three more hits from Cal Ripken.
The Boston Red Sox's victory over Detroit earlier in the day eliminated the Orioles from wild-card contention. Not that there was ever any doubt: Despite the winning streak--their longest since July 1987 and three games shy of the longest in club history, which occurred in 1973--the Orioles have been out of contention since early August.
Still, at 72-76, the Orioles are four games under .500 for the first time since April 16, when their record was 3-7. With 14 games remaining--all against playoff contenders--they need to go 9-5 or better to avoid finishing with a losing record.
"We hurt ourselves with [a 6-16 record] in April," said Orioles closer Mike Timlin, who saved all three games in this sweep. "But that's gone. We can't get angry. We won today. We can't do anything about yesterday."
Asked if reaching .500 carries meaning, Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine said, "Yes and no. Yes, because you can look back and say you didn't have a losing record. But no, because it would still be an extremely unsatisfying season."
"We're having a lot more fun playing," said Orioles starter Mike Mussina, who received no decision tonight, ending his slim hopes to reach 20 victories. "We're mixing some youth in with the veterans. It provides a positive aspect to a year in which we didn't play as well as we wanted."
In the one race that still matters, Ripken had three singles tonight, giving him 2,990 hits for his career. With 14 games remaining, 3,000 appears to be a certainty. Ripken is hitting .515 (17 for 33) in his last nine games.
May's eighth-inning homer, on the first pitch from closer Troy Percival, brought home Conine, who had singled with two outs against right-hander Lou Pote. It made a winner of rookie reliever Gabe Molina (1-1).
The Angels put the potential winning runs on base with nobody out in the eighth. But left-hander Jesse Orosco struck out pinch hitter Bret Hemphill, and right-hander Scott Kamieniecki struck out Todd Greene and got Gary DiSarcina to ground out.
The Orioles' bullpen combined to pitch nine scoreless innings in this three-game sweep, including 3 innings by six pitchers tonight.
Timlin's three saves this weekend gave him 25 for the season, with only one blown save since the all-star break.
Mussina, pitching for just the second time since being hit in the right shoulder with a line drive on Aug. 22, was brilliant over the first five innings. But he was gone after just nine pitches in the sixth, after five straight rockets--two doubles, a line drive to the warning track and two singles.
"For five innings, it was maybe the best I've thrown all year," said Mussina, who remained at 16-7. "But in nine pitches, I fell apart. It was too fast to figure out. . . . I'm still rusty. [The line drive] set me back quite a bit."
Left with the consolation prize of trying to play spoiler to Texas, Oakland, Boston and New York over the final two weeks of the season, the Orioles prefer to use this 11-game winning streak as a window into the future, instead of a mirror to what might have been.
"We knew all along we could win. We just didn't," Timlin said. "I made mistakes. But that's all gone. I know what I did, and I can correct it in my head, but I can't correct it on the stat sheet. No one in here can."
Orioles Notes: With a third-inning walk tonight, catcher Charles Johnson had reached base in 13 of his last 14 plate appearances, including nine consecutive hits, one shy of Ken Singleton's 1981 team record. The consecutive-hits streak ended Saturday with a first-inning groundout, which Johnson followed with three more walks.