TORONTO -- The Orioles do not like to be reminded of the 1991 season, and who can blame them? But the Toronto Blue Jays will not let them forget -- not this weekend anyway.
The undefeated Blue Jays scored six runs off right-hander Rick Sutcliffe in the first three innings yesterday and inched closer to a sweep of their home-opening series with a 7-2 victory at SkyDome.
Toronto right-hander Jack Morris was less than overpowering, too, struggling for seven innings to earn his second victory of the year and keep his new team unbeaten in five games.
Sutcliffe, who became an instant Orioles hero when he pitched a five-hit shutout in the first regular-season game at Camden Yards, took a beating that looked too much like too many Orioles games last year.
No one has to be reminded that the Orioles fell behind by three runs or more in the first three innings 43 times in 1991. That was the most-telling stat of a turbulent season. It has now happened twice in the first five games of '92, although that probably is more a curiosity than cause for comparison between two different starting rotations.
Still, Sutcliffe was one of the pitchers brought in to make sure there's no repeat of 1991. The Orioles are facing a legitimate team for the first time, and the early returns are not good. They already are three games behind the streaking Blue Jays in the American League East.
If that isn't bad enough, the offense has been slow to get started, scoring just nine runs in the first five games and no more than three in any of them. But manager John Oates insists that he is not concerned by the turn of events since the team's positive start at home.
"I'm fine and I hope the team is fine," he said. "It's too soon to start pulling your hair out. If you do, you'll look like [slightly balding PR man] Bob Miller by the All-Star break."
Sutcliffe didn't seem concerned about the club either, but he was furious at himself for the way he pitched in the four-run third inning that put the game out of reach.
The Blue Jays had opened up on Sutcliffe much earlier than that, scoring twice on three extra-base hits in the first inning. They started each of the first three innings with back-to-back hits, so it could have been much worse, but the game was in doubt until two-out run-scoring singles by Candy Maldonado and light-hitting shortstop Manuel Lee knocked Sutcliffe out of the game.
Sutcliffe gave up nine hits and two walks over 2 2/3 innings, but he had to chance to keep it close had he gotten a two-strike slider past Maldonado. He had struck out both Kelly Gruber and John Olerud before Maldonado pulled a sharp one-hopper through the left side of the infield to bring home Joe Carter with the Blue Jays' third run.
"I thought that was the big hit," Sutcliffe said. "If I get that ball away and get him out, we're still in the game. It's only 2-0 and I know we're going to come back and get those two runs back. I worked hard to get Gruber and Olerud. That's the frustrating thing.
"Maldonado is the out I've got to get. If that slider breaks, he hits a ground ball to third. But he hits a shot and gets it into the hole and opens the door to a big inning."
The game still wasn't out of hand at that point, but Sutcliffe yielded a bases-loading walk to Pat Borders and a sharp single by Lee. That was all Oates could take.
"I had made it clear to him that Lee was the guy he had to get," he said. "I told him to use his best stuff. I didn't leave any doubts about my intentions."
Lee is the weak offensive link in an outstanding offensive lineup, but he lined a single into left field. Oates went to his bullpen and brought on Mark Williamson, who gave up a two-run single to Devon White that removed any further doubt about the eventual outcome. All six runs were charged to Sutcliffe.
"Obviously, it wasn't good," Sutcliffe said. "My breaking ball wasn't there today. Walking Borders and letting Manny Lee get a hit. That was just pitiful on my part."
The Orioles had a number of opportunities to pry Morris out of the game, putting 11 runners on base during his seven innings on the mound. They had the bases loaded with no outs in the sixth and hit two sharp line drives, only to come away with a single run.
Credit right fielder Joe Carter with a big save. He ran down a long line drive off the bat of Brady Anderson to prevent at least two runs and keep the Orioles from climbing back into the game. Orioles right fielder Chito Martinez had an opportunity to make a similar game-saver earlier in the game, but the ball glanced off his glove as he crashed the fence.
"We hit a couple of balls well that were caught and they hit a couple that were caught," Oates said. "That's just part of the game."