Athletics 3, Orioles 1

-- Very slowly, the Baltimore Orioles are beginning to take on the outward look of a playoff contender, or at least a team that fancies itself as one. Players talk openly about their standing in the wild-card race. The front office hunts for a right-handed bat to help them down the stretch -- a search that apparently has taken them back to their own stable of players.

The Orioles' 3-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics on Monday night served as a gentle reminder of how difficult their task remains, as the Orioles opened a brutal stretch -- in which they play 26 of 35 games against teams leading their divisions or the wild-card race -- with only their third loss in 14 games.

A healthy crowd of 40,964 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards sat uncomfortably as lefty Mark Redman, the A's fifth starter, cooled the Orioles' hot bats considerably during an eight-inning gem, then roared to life when the Orioles staged a would-be ninth-inning comeback that ultimately was derailed by a controversial umpire's call.

And it gets no easier from here for the Orioles, who will face Oakland aces Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder the next two nights -- though it is doubtful either can do anything to the Orioles more painful than what they experienced in the ninth inning Monday night.

Melvin Mora's double to lead off the inning against A's closer Octavio Dotel brought the tying run to the plate. With one out, Rafael Palmeiro tried to check his swing on an 0-2 down-and-in slider, while at the same time getting his feet out of the way of the ball. He wound up in a heap on the ground, and home plate umpire Angel Hernandez awarded him first base on a hit-by-pitch. The Orioles would have the go-ahead run at the plate.

However, the A's belatedly appealed to third base umpire Larry Young, saying Palmeiro had swung, and Young agreed, ringing up Palmeiro. Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli argued vehemently to no avail and was still seething in the dugout as Dotel finished off the Orioles.

"He said he swung. I don't know how," Mazzilli said. ". . . I'm not happy about the call."

"I didn't swing," Palmeiro said. "I went to the ground. How am I going to swing the bat going to the ground? I think he missed it. That was a bad call."

Told that Palmeiro insisted he was merely trying to avoid the pitch, Young said: "I agree with him. He was falling down. But he also swung. We looked at the replay. I still think he swung."

The A's came into the game holding a half-game lead over both Anaheim and Texas in the American League West -- a race the Orioles have affected greatly, with four wins over the Rangers and two over the Angels in recent days.

On Monday night, the A's needed only five innings to figure out Orioles rookie left-hander Erik Bedard, whom they were facing for the first time. After being shut out through four innings, the A's rapped out four hits in the inning -- including Eric Byrnes's RBI double, and three straight two-out singles -- while scoring three times.

True to his season-long pattern, Bedard (5-7) was wicked when he threw the ball over the plate, but did so far too seldom. He leads the league in average pitches per inning (19.1), and on Monday needed 113 pitches just to slog his way through six innings.

Redman (9-9), on the other hand, was still strong in the eighth, having thrown only 95 pitches through seven. The only run he allowed came on Javy Lopez's 18th homer of the season, with one out in the fifth.

The Orioles are 16-22 this season in games started by lefties, although they had won their four previous such games.

Meantime, in Frederick, Md., veteran designated hitter David Segui played first base for the Class A Frederick Keys on a rehab assignment. If his surgically repaired left knee responds well, he could be activated by mid-week and called upon to help solve the team's season-long struggle against left-handed pitching.

The fact Segui was playing first base at Frederick was interesting, since he played there only once in the season's first three weeks before being injured, and has played there only 16 times the last three years.

It appears the Orioles may be preparing to launch a platoon at first base, with the switch-hitting Segui playing against left-handed pitchers, against whom Palmeiro is hitting only .186 (24 for 129) this season -- including an 0 for 3 against Redman.

Orioles Notes: Second baseman Brian Roberts was named AL player of the week for the week ending Sunday, after batting .531 with 10 runs scored and eight doubles. . . .

Left fielder Larry Bigbie was scratched from the lineup before the game after aggravating a strained groin injury during batting practice, and was replaced by B.J. Surhoff . . .

Catcher Ken Huckaby, who cleared waivers last week and was outrighted to Class AAA Ottawa, refused his minor league assignment and was granted free agency. . . .

In his first game against his former team, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada went 0 for 3 with a walk . . .

The Orioles will hold their annual D.C. FanFest at their team store on Farragut Square (925 17th St. NW) on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mazzilli, Orioles players and coaches will sign autographs and participate in fan forums.

Erik Bedard, getting a breather as catcher Javy Lopez visits the mound, gave up three runs in six innings. Mark Redman limits the Orioles to one run in eight innings. In the ninth, the Orioles lost an argument involving a key pitch to Rafael Palmeiro.