The size of the crowd at the start of today's doubleheader at Oriole Park at Camden Yards said as much about the state of the Baltimore Orioles' season as any player or team official could. About 2,000 fans were scattered throughout the stadium for the first pitch of the Orioles' 9-6 loss to the Oakland Athletics in the opener, which was followed by an Orioles' 12-4 victory in the second game in front of about 20,000.
The sparse early crowd gave the ballpark a rare desolate feel, which seemed to befit the occasion. With Cal Ripken's quest for 3,000 career hits abruptly halted because of a recurrence of back problems that required surgery today in Cleveland, and Baltimore on a roll but long eliminated from playoff contention, there seemed little incentive for fans to arrive early.
Game 1 proved as disappointing as the surrounding circumstances. Four home runs and a three-run eighth inning propelled Oakland to victory and ended the Orioles' 13-game winning streak -- just one game short of matching the team record, set in 1973. The loss came despite a season-high 15 strikeouts by Orioles starter Sidney Ponson and a quartet of relievers.
In the second game, both the Orioles' play and the crowd picked up immensely. Albert Belle tied a major league record with four doubles, helping him to a 6-for-8 performance in both games with one home run, a single and five RBI. In Game 2, three Orioles hit home runs -- Derrick May, Calvin Pickering and Brady Anderson.
Though today's games were meaningless to the Orioles, the A's had plenty to play for. The Boston Red Sox' loss to the Toronto Blue Jays brought Oakland within 4 1/2 games of the Boston for the American League wild-card slot.
The 6-hour, 17-minute doubleheader, which ended at about 11 p.m., completed a grueling 24 hours for the Orioles, who arrived in Baltimore at 3:30 a.m. after their Wednesday night game in Arlington, Tex. At the conclusion of tonight's doubleheader, the Orioles immediately left for Boston, where they will play the Red Sox Friday. Today's games were makeups of two rainouts caused by Hurricane Floyd last week.
"We played good, even though we came in late this morning," Pickering said. "In the second game we put it together."
Orioles reliever Gabe Molina, who gave up the deciding run on his very first pitch to A's shortstop Miguel Tejada, took the loss in the first game. Tejada hit a home run into the left field seats to give Oakland a 7-6 lead in the eighth inning. Starting pitcher Sidney Ponson struck out eight but gave up six runs on 10 hits, including three home runs, in 4 2/3 innings.
Doug Johns pitched 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to earn the victory in the nightcap, making a return from a mysterious ailment that caused him to miss the team's last road trip. Team officials have been vague about Johns's absence, saying only that he has been troubled by problems relating to insomnia.
"This is not neurosurgery," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said. "We've had pretty consistent offense all year, good defense for the most part, but the one thing we've been short on is relief pitching. . . . One thing that's changed [in the second half of the season] is when I go to the bullpen, somebody gets somebody out."
Also in the second game, Orioles prospect Matt Riley, 20, made his second major league appearance. His inexperience showed, but he drew a standing ovation when he departed after 4 2/3 innings. Riley walked seven and gave up four runs on five hits. He threw 112 pitches.
However, Riley brought the fans to their feet when he struck out slugger Matt Stairs -- who hit two home runs today, one off of Riley -- after falling behind 3-0 in the count.
"The talent is there," Miller said about Riley. "He's just a young kid."
"This is still a good experience for me," Riley said. "I'm going to come into spring training with a lot better clue."
The Orioles were helped in the second game by an error by third baseman Olemedo Saenz, which led to five unearned runs in the fourth inning. That, combined with the trio of home runs, enabled the Orioles to win for the 17th time in their past 21 games.