The Baltimore Orioles made short work of the year's longest winning streak on Monday, but they couldn't do anything about baseball's hottest pitcher last night.
Both belong to the Minnesota Twins, who remained on a roll with a rain-delayed 9-2 victory over the Orioles at Memorial Stadium.
Right-hander Scott Erickson extended his winning streak to 11 games with a six-inning performance in which he surrendered one hit and dropped his league-leading ERA to 1.51.
Erickson (11-2) has been the talk of the American League, but the most impressive thing about him last night was the way he dismissed the Orioles with a seemingly unimpressive performance. He only gave up the one hit, but he walked five and gave up a string of well-hit balls before making his earliest exit of the season.
"He wasn't 10-2, 1.60-ERA impressive, even though he shut us out with one hit," said Orioles manager John Oates, referring to Erickson's numbers entering the game. "He walked five and he gave up some line drives. Sam Horn hit a ball that was out of here on a normal night. The heavy air kept the ball in the ballpark."
The game was delayed nearly two hours by rain, the damp night cutting down a number of long fly balls, not all of them hit by Orioles. Erickson wasn't at his best, but he didn't have to be once the Twins staked him to a very early 6-0 lead against former teammate Roy Smith.
Smith was looking forward to his first chance to face the Twins, who released him after his 5-10 season in 1990, but the evening didn't turn out quite the way he had hoped.
The Twins scored two runs in the first inning and batted around to score four more in the second to hasten Smith's first defeat as an Oriole.
It was not a giveaway night, unless you count what happened in the first inning. The Twins scored a run when Mike Devereaux overplayed a line-drive double by Kent Hrbek and got a freebie when Smith moved Hrbek around with a wild pitch and a balk.
The game unraveled in a hurry after that. Five of the first six Minnesota batters reached base in a second inning that featured a few well-placed hits and some frightening fielding.
Shane Mack opened the inning with a looping base hit to right and scored on a double by Mike Pagliarulo that glanced off the glove of a fast-retreating Devereaux in deep center field. Junior Ortiz gave the Twins a four-run lead with a seeing-eye single through the middle of the infield, but Smith could have stopped them right there if he had fielded his position more efficiently.
Greg Gagne bounced a comebacker to the mound that should have been worth two outs, but Smith's throw was behind Cal Ripken, forcing the Orioles to settle for one out on the play. Moments later, Smith was late covering first on a bouncer by Chuck Knoblauch, setting up an RBI groundout by Kirby Puckett and a run-scoring single by Hrbek.
"It looked like Roy was nervous," Oates said, "but you'd have to ask him. "He was really rushing. He also looked like he had a little trouble getting loose in the bullpen. He was out there from 9:02 until 9:20. That's quite a while."
Smith said that he wasn't nervous about facing the Twins, but he admitted that he wanted badly to beat them.
"Sure, you do," he said, "but I wasn't nervous. I've thrown too many games to get nervous about something like that. I wanted to beat them, but I wanted to do it for me and for the Baltimore Orioles. I have no animosity toward them at all."
The Orioles have come back from a couple of large deficits over the past two weeks, but that was too much to ask against one of the hottest pitchers in baseball. Erickson gave up some hard-hit balls, but the only time he was any kind of danger was in the first inning, when Devereaux drove a leadoff double off the left-center-field fence.
Devereaux moved over on a ground out, but Erickson struck out hot-hitting Cal Ripken and Randy Milligan to strand him at third.
Smith settled down after the second inning, though it was just a matter of damage control at that point. The bullpen was rested, but Oatesapparently wanted to keep it that way for today's series finale. He finally went to left-hander Paul Kilgus with a run in and a couple of runners on base in the sixth.
The Orioles continue to suffer from a bad case of early-inning excess. In six of the past eight games, they have fallen behind by at least three runs in the first four innings. Three times they have rallied to overcome that deficit, but only once gone on to win. That was on Sunday in Toronto, when they fell behind by three in the first inning and came back to score a 13-8 victory over the Blue Jays at SkyDome.
Orioles starters came into last night's game with a combined 11.10 ERA over the previous seven games, a number that -- oddly enough -- did not change when Smith's 5 2/3 -inning, seven-run performance was factored in.