The American League's schedule-makers have ensured that the dwindling days of the Baltimore Orioles' season will contain more drama than just Cal Ripken's pursuit of 3,000 career hits. Over the next two weeks, the Orioles have the ability to affect the wild-card race, the East Division race and the battle for home-field advantage.
And while the streaking Orioles take little solace in playing the role of spoiler, their 4-2 victory over the AL West-leading Texas Rangers in front of 24,192 at The Ballpark helped add some meaning to an otherwise dreary season.
The Orioles' 12-game winning streak is the third-longest in club history, but tonight marked the first victory during that streak against a team slated for postseason play. The Rangers fell 2 1/2 games behind New York in the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
"It's not the role we want to be in, playing the spoiler," rookie second baseman Jerry Hairston said, "but it's all we've got."
Meanwhile, Ripken's pursuit of 3,000 career hits inched forward tonight. He was 1 for 4 with a double off the glove of second baseman Mark McLemore in the second inning, leaving Ripken nine hits shy of the milestone with 12 games remaining.
Orioles starter Jason Johnson (7-7) pitched six innings to win his fourth straight decision and reach the .500 mark. "That was important to me," he said. "Now the big thing is to get above .500. . . . It's important to me to finish strong because if we ever get to the playoffs one year, I want to know I'll be strong in September and October."
Johnson was pitching on 12 days' rest, due to the reshuffling of the rotation after Hurricane Floyd caused two postponements, which allowed the nagging blister on his right index finger time to heal, although he said it wasn't a factor tonight. He allowed a solo homer in the second to Lee Stevens, which hit the facing of the upper deck in right, but otherwise kept the Rangers off the scoreboard.
"He's moved right into the same situation as [Sidney] Ponson," Manager Ray Miller said. "He has a good arm and a good downward plane, but then he makes an 0-2 mistake. That's just youth."
Johnson left after the sixth with a 4-1 lead, courtesy of the four runs the Orioles scored in the third inning on five singles off Rangers starter Esteban Loaiza (8-5). The key at-bat of the inning belonged to Mike Bordick, and it came on a poorly executed sacrifice attempt.
With runners on first and second, nobody out and a run already in, Bordick popped up his bunt down the third-base line, which could have turned into a double play. But Loaiza could not make a diving catch, and Bordick reached safely with a single, loading the bases. B.J. Surhoff followed with an RBI groundout, and Albert Belle lined a two-run single to right, giving the Orioles a 4-1 lead.
Rangers shortstop Royce Clayton greeted right-hander Al Reyes with a homer to left to lead off the seventh, breaking a streak of 10 straight scoreless innings by the Orioles' bullpen, spanning four games. But Gabe Molina, Scott Kamieniecki and closer Mike Timlin finished off the Rangers. For Timlin, it was his 16th save in 17 chances since the all-star break.
Orioles Notes: Left-handed pitcher Doug Johns, who did not make the road trip due to what the club described as "a recurrence of the condition that causes his insomnia," nonetheless showed up unannounced at the Orioles' hotel in Arlington on Monday. Johns told teammates he was there to see the Dallas Cowboys-Atlanta Falcons NFL game. He did not show up at The Ballpark today.
It remains unclear if Johns will pitch again this season. "He has to complete the course [of treatment]," General Manager Frank Wren said, "and at this point I haven't been told that he has."
Although the Orioles have been purposefully vague about the nature of Johns's condition, Wren said it is not related to his April arrest for marijuana possession, and Johns has not been disciplined by the team. . . .
Ripken's playing schedule over the remainder of the week will present some challenges, as the Orioles try to balance their desire for number 3,000 to occur at home, against their obligation to field their best team in games that could affect the playoff race.
Miller said he and Ripken spoke about the subject Sunday, and that Ripken will play both games of Thursday's doubleheader against Oakland "if he's all right" physically. "We're going on a how-you-feel basis," Miller said.