Yankees 2, Orioles 1

-- Perhaps never before had a no-hitter been so expected and so anticipated that hours before Thursday's game, the conversation at Yankee Stadium centered not on would New York win yet again, but how quickly Randy Johnson would dispose of a feeble Baltimore Orioles lineup, putting the Yankees so much closer to a playoff spot. The loss of second baseman Brian Roberts to a dislocated elbow on Tuesday night had a devastating affect on the Baltimore batting order, which had already been slumping.

No history was made as the meek Orioles lineup managed three hits and a run against Johnson in a 2-1 loss. But it was the expected result nonetheless. Johnson was magnificent in his eight innings, sending New York past Boston, losers to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Wednesday, into first place in the American League East.

"I think you have a team with a lot of talent on a roll," Orioles first baseman Chris Gomez said of the surging Yankees, winners of nine of 10 games. "It makes it very tough. When they're on a roll with so much at stake we have to play perfect ball to compete."

Less than two weeks ago, the Yankees trailed Boston by four games. Now they have a half-game lead.

"First place doesn't count until the end," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said. "We were in first place one time before, and it was nice to fight our way back to that spot with the way we started. But first place only counts on that last Sunday."

The first four innings had gone quickly for Johnson, and only a walk to Miguel Tejada ruined a possible perfect game. It would remain so until the fifth inning. With one out it appeared the Orioles had snapped Johnson's bid for a no-hitter with a grounder up the middle by Eric Byrnes. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter made a diving grab but threw wide to first baseman Jason Giambi. Under normal circumstances, the ruling from the official scorer would be rather easy. It was a single. But here it was clearly not.

Replays showed that perhaps Jeter had enough time after making the diving stop to get Byrnes out. That simple bit of doubt caused the official scorer to take his time. Several moments passed before Howie Karpin ruled the play an error on Jeter.

The ruling was flashed on the scoreboard and the crowd roared. The 50,382 at Yankee Stadium too had sensed the chances of a no-hitter on this pleasant September evening were great. Those hopes were dashed when the following hitter, Gomez, singled to right field, just past diving second baseman Robinson Cano.

"It was still pretty early, but with a guy who is capable of doing that every time out, you see that," Gomez said of Johnson's no-hit bid.

It was perhaps silly to expect something so great from Johnson. But perfection is what Yankees fans had hoped for when the Yankees swung the blockbuster deal for the lefty last offseason. It had not turned out to be so as Johnson had often been mediocre. But on certain nights when his 42-year-old body had felt 20 years younger, Johnson was still capable of a masterpiece. Though not perfect, and against this Baltimore lineup he didn't need to be, Johnson allowed just one run, on an RBI double by Melvin Mora.

"He had great stuff but not great location," Yankees catcher John Flaherty said. "But his stuff was good enough to overpower that lineup."

For 31-year-old rookie Alejandro Freire, it was the challenge of a career. The designated hitter, who hit fifth in this lineup, struck out twice against Johnson.

"He's been good all his life," Freire said. "I know the guy from watching him for a long time. I wanted to face that challenge. But today he won."

Much was expected of Orioles starter Rodrigo Lopez also, but clearly not to the degree of Johnson. It's true that Lopez was dubbed Baltimore's Opening Day starter, a designation usually reserved for a team's ace. He has not pitched that way consistently.

But dueling with Johnson on Wednesday, Lopez shined in his 61/3 innings. He allowed just two runs, both scoring on Matt Lawton's two-run home run in the second inning. Though Johnson's performance was typical, Lawton's was not. He entered the game batting just .098 with the Yankees. He had two hits.

It was something no one had anticipated.

The Yankees' Randy Johnson flirts with a no-hitter until giving up a single in the fifth.