Yankees 5, Orioles 2

When the New York Yankees came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning of a tie game Thursday afternoon, having already whipped the Baltimore Orioles twice this week and knowing full well they could win this one any way they wanted, four of their next five hitters were right-handed. It was the perfect spot for the Orioles to counter with a trustworthy right-handed reliever -- if only they had one.

Let's see . . . Mike DeJean? He has a 7.84 ERA and has failed to gain back his manager's trust. Rodrigo Lopez? He's in the starting rotation now.

Darwin Cubillan? Eddy Rodriguez? Not if the Orioles were trying seriously to win.

So Manager Lee Mazzilli did the only thing he felt he could do: He brought in a lefty. And when that lefty faltered, he brought in another.

The result was predictable, if not preordained. The Yankees pummeled John Parrish and B.J. Ryan for three decisive runs, giving them a 5-2 victory and an emphatic three-game sweep in front of 44,020 at Yankee Stadium.

The Orioles had leads in all three games, but still fell to 0-6 this season against Mazzilli's former team, and 17-45 against the Yankees since 2001.

"There's been so many games where we had a lead and lost it," said Orioles veteran catcher Javy Lopez, who served as designated hitter on Thursday. "I know our pitching is doing the best it can. Unfortunately, most of the games we've lost have been [because of] walking people."

The second-guessers will be questioning Mazzilli's handling of the seventh inning for days to come. He could have chosen to stick with rookie starter Daniel Cabrera, a 6-foot-7 right-hander who pitched beyond his 23 years in holding the Yankees to two runs on six hits through six innings.

Cabrera's pitch count at the time was a modest 89, although he had just endured a shaky sixth.

"I felt good [enough] to go back out there," Cabrera said through an interpreter. "But that's [the coaching staff's] decision."

"We had already made that decision," Mazzilli said. " . . . We knew he was done after that sixth inning."

Mazzilli also could have gone with DeJean, who despite his gaudy ERA had strung together three straight decent outings, including a scoreless inning the night before. But none of those three outings had been in high-pressure, late-inning situations.

Asked about DeJean following Thursday's loss, Mazzilli said vaguely, "You talk it over with your coaches, what you think [is best] in that spot."

Clearly, Mazzilli felt his best option was to go to his best relievers, regardless of which hand they threw with. That meant Parrish got the ball to start the inning. And after Parrish put runners on first and second with one out by giving up a single to Miguel Cairo and hitting Derek Jeter on the foot with a breaking ball, it meant Ryan had to come in to try to clean up the mess.

But after striking out Alex Rodriguez for the second out, Ryan threw a 1-1 pitch to Gary Sheffield that caught too much of the plate, and Sheffield hit a drive to right for a two-run double. "Sometimes," Ryan said, "they hit it where they're not." Next, Matsui singled off the glove of Rafael Palmeiro, bringing home a third run.

Amazingly, Matsui's was the first hit allowed by Ryan to a left-handed hitter all season in 31 official at-bats. That still leaves lefties hitting only .032 against him.

The three-run seventh made a winner out of Yankees right-hander Javier Vazquez (6-4), who allowed only a solo homer to Lopez and another run in the fourth when he plunked Lopez with the bases loaded and nobody out. It became a pivotal point in the game, as Vazquez, who reacted to the wayward fastball with spasms of disgust, retired the next three Orioles batters -- B.J. Surhoff (foul out to catcher), Luis Matos (strikeout) and Larry Bigbie (force out) -- to end the inning and did not allow another hit.

For the second straight game, an Orioles runner was picked off second base with the heart of the order coming to the plate. On Wednesday night, it was Jerry Hairston. On Thursday, it was Melvin Mora, who was nailed after he inexplicably took off for third while Vazquez had his back to him. Vazquez simply stepped off the mound and threw to third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who applied the tag. At the plate, Palmeiro, the cleanup hitter, gazed on incredulously.

After seven strong innings, Vazquez turned it over to the Yankees' veteran-laden, dependable bullpen. Closer Mariano Rivera capped it with a perfect ninth inning, gaining his 21st save and third in this series.

The Orioles came away from this series cognizant of the shortcomings on the right side of their bullpen.

"Somehow we've got to figure out a way -- which way I want to go and what I want to do," Mazzilli said.

But the Orioles also came away perturbed by what they saw as a generally inequitable strike zone -- mostly large for the Yankees' pitchers and much smaller for their own -- symbolized by the third strike called against pinch hitter Jose Leon to end Wednesday night's loss.

"It's hard to compete not only against [the Yankees], but against the umpires," said Lopez, who said the Orioles had a difficult time getting their quality pitches called as strikes. "Those are pitches that put their hitters ahead in the count and lead to walks."

Orioles Notes: Right-hander Kurt Ainsworth will be examined by team doctors in Baltimore on Friday, because he is still experiencing pain in his elbow. Ainsworth, who began the season in the Orioles' rotation, is on the disabled list with Class AAA Ottawa and was being treated with a cortisone shot and rest. . . .

Infielder Jose Bautista was claimed off waivers by Tampa Bay on Thursday. Because he was a Rule 5 draft pick by the Orioles in December, the Devil Rays are required to carry him on their 25-man roster, which means he will be in uniform Friday when the Devil Rays open a three-game series at Baltimore.

Up against a line of right-handed Yankees, lefties John Parrish and B.J. Ryan, above, were pummeled. Orioles catcher Robert Machado is left waiting for the ball in the seventh inning while the Yankees' Derek Jeter scores on Gary Sheffield's double.