Orioles 7, Tigers 3
There were enough elements of mystery, intrigue and suspense in the top of the ninth inning Sunday afternoon to fill a short novel.
It included a surprise pinch-running appearance by a player presumed to be injured and unavailable, a suicide-squeeze attempt that the manager in question did not call for and a handful of critical strategy decisions that all fell in one team's favor.
It also included six runs for the Baltimore Orioles against Detroit Tigers closer Ugueth Urbina, leading to a stunning 7-3 win and a three-game sweep that has lifted the Orioles (23-23) back to .500.
Three days after a 13-run loss at home to the New York Yankees stretched their season-long losing streak to seven games, the Orioles wrapped up their third straight win over the Tigers in front of 25,337 at Comerica Park.
"That," Manager Lee Mazzilli said, "was a real good win."
When the ninth inning began, the Orioles were down 2-1 and getting ready to face an accomplished closer, Urbina, who had a 0.93 ERA and 13 career saves against them. Their frustrations to that point included six stranded base runners, with another two wiped out on inning-ending double plays, and a wasted effort by starting pitcher Erik Bedard, who threw six solid innings.
The leadoff batter in the ninth, designated hitter Javy Lopez, fell behind 0-2 to Urbina on a pair of wicked sliders. But having faced Urbina often last season when both were in the National League East, Lopez guessed Urbina would throw him another slider. And when he did, Lopez smacked it into center field.
"I was ready for the same pitch, for the slider," Lopez said. "I have an idea of what kind of stuff he has."
Then, who should pop out of the Orioles' dugout as a pinch runner but Larry Bigbie. Although Bigbie was held out of the Orioles' lineup because he had stubbed his toe in his hotel room during the night, Mazzilli had approached him late in the game to see if he could pinch-run.
"He asked if I could run, if I could score from second on a base hit," Bigbie said. "I said, 'I can score.' "
Within moments, that exact scenario came to pass. Luis Matos singled, sending Bigbie to second and bringing B.J. Surhoff to the plate.
Mazzilli considered having Surhoff lay down a sacrifice bunt in order to put the go-ahead runs in scoring position, but he also knew he wanted veteran Rafael Palmeiro -- who had been given a rare day off -- to pinch-hit for the next batter, Jose Leon. And he knew the Tigers would walk Palmeiro with a base open.
So he let Surhoff swing away, and Surhoff delivered a sharp single to center field, with Bigbie scoring easily from second base, just as he had promised.
Mazzilli called Surhoff's the key at-bat of the inning. "If he makes an out, it's very easy to say, 'Why didn't he bunt them over?' " Mazzilli said. "So you roll the dice with him."
With the score tied, Palmeiro drew a walk anyway, laying off a 3-2 fastball on the outside corner and loading the bases.
After Robert Machado struck out for the first out of the inning, bringing Brian Roberts to the plate, Tigers Manager Alan Trammell came to the mound to confer with Urbina and his infielders.
It's doubtful Trammell instructed Urbina to force home the go-ahead run by walking Roberts, but that's what transpired.
First, however, came the botched squeeze. On a 2-0 count to Roberts, third base coach Tom Trebelhorn believed he saw Mazzilli, near the top step of the Orioles' dugout, flash the sign for a suicide squeeze. Trebelhorn then flashed the corresponding sign to Roberts and Matos, the runner on third.
With Matos sprinting toward home, Roberts squared to bunt, and Mazzilli's blood pressure spiked. "I didn't want [the squeeze play] on," Mazzilli said. "I said, 'Wow.' "
But Roberts fouled off the bunt, and Mazzilli calmed down. Finally, Roberts drew a walk that forced in the go-ahead run.
The next batter, Jerry Hairston, lined a shot to the wall in left, which became a single only because the bases were so clogged. Two runs scored, and the Orioles led by three.
It was Hairston's fourth hit of the day, a pleasant way to mark his second career start in left field.
"We were able to come away with a win and beat a great pitcher," Hairston said. "We have great leaders on this team. They don't let us get down and dwell on the negatives."
Orioles Notes: Hairston's four-hit day may have deepened the level of intrigue surrounding the second-base situation. Mazzilli acknowledged that the situation, with Roberts holding the primary second-base job, is unfair to Hairston. "It's hard," Mazzilli said. "I wish I had a definitive answer that 'this is the way it should be and this is the way I want to go.' I really don't. But [Hairston] has been understanding." . . .
Struggling veteran right-hander Mike DeJean collected five outs without allowing a run, lowering his ERA to 8.68. Still, he fell behind 2-0 to three of the seven batters he faced, and 1-0 to two others. . . .
Melvin Mora collected a single in the eighth to extend his hitting streak to 12 games and keep his league-leading batting average at .380. But he also twice failed to get runners home from third with less than two outs. . . . Bigbie said he expects to be able to start Monday afternoon in Boston, where the Orioles play a makeup game against the Red Sox at 1:05 p.m.