Orioles 9, Blue Jays 3

It is the state of a once-proud and winning organization that the quest for a mediocre season has become the Baltimore Orioles' biggest prize. That goal of a .500 record is a feat so cherished by the team that its manager plays each game with the delicacy of a surgeon.

"Nobody wants to be a loser," Orioles outfielder David Newhan said.

With a 9-3 win against the Toronto Blue Jays at Oriole Park at Camden Yards Thursday night, the Orioles are four wins from an 81-81 record with four games to play. From 1968 to 1997, the Orioles finished with a sub-.500 record only six times, but they have not so much as reached the mark since '97.

"It's been a turnaround for this organization," Baltimore Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "You never want to be content with anything, but in what we want to achieve, we're going in the right direction."

If there is one player leading the team in that direction, it is shortstop Miguel Tejada. In the third inning, Tejada's dazzling play saved starter Matt Riley from a disastrous outing.

"That's the play of the game," Riley said. "If you're able to look at one thing that turned this game around, it was that play."

With runners at first and second and two runs already in, Toronto's Alexis Rios hit a stinging line drive at Tejada that took an bad hop, jumping toward the shortstop's face. Tejada, who said he never saw the ball, simply raised his glove with extreme dexterity, gloved the ball near his head and flipped it to second baseman Brian Roberts, who threw to first base to complete the double play.

"I still don't know how he caught that ball," Mazzilli said. "It was a rocket. That play was a big turnaround in this game."

Tejada handed Riley, who pitched five innings, his third victory of the season by hitting a go-ahead, two-run double in the third inning against Toronto starter Josh Towers, who immediately was removed from the game after the double and suffered his shortest outing of the year. In case the Baltimore bullpen needed a bigger cushion, Tejada hit his 33rd home run in the fifth inning.

Three other Orioles -- Larry Bigbie, Newhan and Jay Gibbons -- also hit home runs.

A little more than a month ago, on Aug. 28, a .500 season appeared to be a pipe dream. Baltimore had lost 12 straight and another September fold seemed a foregone conclusion.

Amazingly, the Orioles have become a formidable team during this last month of the season. With an 18-10 record (.643), Baltimore is tied for the fifth-best winning percentage in the majors in September with the playoff-bound Boston Red Sox, a team that needed a strong finish for a postseason berth.

It is those Red Sox, who arrive at Camden Yards today for a four-game series and who stand in the way of .500. The Orioles will need perfection in their next four games in order to reach mediocrity.

"We can show people," Tejada said in Spanish, "we didn't have a bad season."

Orioles Notes: Mazzilli said he is considering starting Rick Bauer on three days' rest for the season finale on Sunday. Bauer impressed Mazzilli by throwing six scoreless innings in Wednesday's Game 2 of a doubleheader, allowing just three hits, while striking out a career-high seven . . .

Gibbons will not play the outfield for the final four games of the season because of a strained left hip flexor. Gibbons, who missed 15 games while on the disabled list because of the injury, will likely DH or play first base against Boston this weekend . . .

Catcher Javy Lopez left Thursday's game in the third inning with sore left foot. Lopez fouled a ball of his foot during his at bat in the second inning . . .

Tejada's double in the in the third, Baltimore's 312th of the season, broke the Orioles' team single-season doubles mark previously set in 2002. Tejada's home run in the fifth, Baltimore's 1,572th hit of the year, broke the team mark for hits set in 1999.

Matt Riley (3-4) gives up three runs in five innings. Orioles must sweep Boston in four-game series to finish at .500.