BALTIMORE -- Just when it appeared they had handed over the deed to the house, the keys to the car, and the bank accounts of their children to the visiting hordes from the north, the Baltimore Orioles evidently decided there's a better way to spend a hot August night than as orange-and-black piñatas.
With Oriole Park at Camden Yards filled to overflowing with Red Sox fans, who show up in numbers that have gone from impressive to stupefying, the Orioles seemingly were staggered by a five-run Boston rally in the top of the eighth inning that obliterated the pitchers' duel between Orioles lefthander Erik Bedard and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Instead, the Orioles responded in kind, tying the score in the bottom of the inning with four runs charged to Sox newcomer Eric Gagne, then pinning a 6-5 loss on Hideki Okajima, his first of the season, when Brian Roberts opened the ninth with a double, was bunted to third by Corey Patterson, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Nick Markakis.
The Sox' AL East lead over the Yankees was sliced again to five games, New York having won in Cleveland. And the wall of sound that had washed over Wily Mo Peña's game-tying single, Julio Lugo's go-ahead, two-out bunt single, and run-scoring hits by David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez during one of the team's few late-inning uprisings this season gave way to the sight of Gagne spending minutes staring into his locker.
"I'm not doing my job right now," said Gagne, who has pitched four times for the Sox since their deadline trade with Texas, allowed runs in three of them (16.20 ERA), and been raked by opposing hitters for nine hits in 19 at-bats, a .474 clip.
Kind of makes you understand why on the Orioles telecast, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer was saying that he hasn't been impressed by Gagne this season, even before last night's implosion. And it raises the question of whether Sox manager Terry Francona will have to rethink how he deploys his bullpen down the stretch, if Gagne doesn't settle in soon.
Last night, in the span of five batters, Gagne went double, single, walk, comebacker, and Aubrey Huff's two-run double, one that right fielder J.D. Drew kicked away to put the tying run in scoring position.
"I didn't want to be overly aggressive," Drew said, "but I thought for sure I was going to have a chance at the ball. It had a lot of topspin on it. I just tried to throw my glove down there, keep in front of it. It took a crazy hop right there."
The night kept spinning out of control from there. Okajima said he didn't expect to receive a summons in the eighth. Instead, he warmed up, in a time frame compressed from his usual routine, and surrendered a tying single to Melvin Mora. Coco Crisp singled with two outs in the ninth, Drew walked, and Crisp stole third, but Lugo flied out to end the inning.
Roberts opened the home ninth with a drive into the right-center gap, and two batters later, Okajima was walking off the mound a loser.
Roberts, he said, hit a changeup. Had he left it up? He offered a small smile. "I don't know," he said. "I was looking at the ground.
"But I am disappointed more for the team, that we lost, than for my loss."
This was only the third time this season the Sox had lost a game in which they led by as many as four runs. This was the first time they'd lost a big lead so late, and they wasted the big hit by Peña and terrific bunt by Lugo, who pushed it past the mound to score Crisp.
But just when the carpetbaggers' bloodlust was at its height, the fans howling their approval, the Orioles bounced back.
"I'm not going to lie to you -- in the eighth, I was fairly agitated, use whatever phrase you want," said Roberts, the spirited Orioles leadoff man, referring to the loyalty of the biggest Baltimore crowd of the season, 48,993, tilting drastically in favor of the visitors. "It gets old. It really does. You'd like your fans, the people in your city, to take pride in their team.
"I know they're not going to come out 45,000 a night when you're not winning. I guess I just don't understand if Boston fans are so excited to be here why Orioles fans wouldn't be."
More nights like this, they will be.
"You just don't expect that," Roberts said of the Orioles' comeback. "You believe you can win any game, but you know the odds of scoring five runs against that bullpen. There aren't a lot of teams that could have done what we did tonight. I don't care if you're 20 games over .500 or 20 games under, not that many teams can give up five runs in the eighth and come back against a pen like that."
Matsuzaka had held the Orioles to a first-inning run on a walk, stolen base, and Miguel Tejada's single, then hung zeroes for the next six innings. Matsuzaka, who has won three of his last four decisions and has allowed just five earned runs in his last 27 1/3 innings, struck out seven. With 159 K's, he set a Sox rookie record for strikeouts in a season, surpassing the mark of 155 set by Ken Brett in 1970.
Gordon Edes can be reached at email@example.com.