A year after the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves made going from last to first fashionable, the Orioles have added their own wrinkle. Embarrassed possessors of the worst ERA (4.59) in baseball a year ago, the Orioles are atop the American League pitching chart with a miniscule 2.82 ERA after yesterday's 3-2 win over the Detroit Tigers at Oriole Park.
Bob Milacki (1-1) got last-inning help from Gregg Olson to continue the magnificent run by Orioles starters. Milacki allowed four hits and struck out seven, being damaged only by bases-empty home runs by ex-Oriole Mickey Tettleton and Travis Fryman.
Olson finished off the game in typically adventurous style, giving up a single and walk before striking out Rob Deer and Fryman to end the game and record his second save of the year.
The win was the third in a row for the Orioles, and their fifth in six games at Camden Yards, where 43,548 spent Easter afternoon. In the six games at Oriole Park, the home team has allowed only seven runs while compiling a 1.00 ERA.
Milacki had only occasional early difficulties yesterday, as he used a variety of pitches to restrict the free-swinging Tigers and out-duel right-hander Walt Terrell (0-2). "I was effectively wild at the start," said Milacki, "but it got better as the game went on.
"I was behind too many hitters in the first few innings," said Milacki, who issued three walks, two of them in the first three innings. Milacki's effort followed sterling performances by Rick Sutcliffe, who shut out the Tigers on Friday night, and Mike Mussina, who allowed one run in eight innings Saturday.
Subscribing to the theory that good pitching is contagious, Milacki said: "Watching someone pitch well, like Rick and Mike did, gives you a better chance to get a 'read' on hitters. It's tough to get a line on hitters when they're hitting real good."
Although they always seemed to be threatening, the Orioles never took command of yesterday's game. Despite throwing less than 50 percent of his pitches for strikes (60 of 126), Terrell usually found a way to escape.
He induced three double plays, one in each of the first two innings, to offset six walks and a hit batter in addition to the five hits he allowed. The Orioles were able to break through against Terrell only in the third and fourth innings.
Chris Hoiles opened the scoring by hitting his third homer of the season, around the left-field foul pole to start the third inning. The Orioles added another run when Brady Anderson was hit by a pitch (the fourth time in 51 plate appearances), went to third on Joe Orsulak's single and scored on a sacrifice fly by Cal Ripken.
Tettleton's home run (No. 2) halved the lead an inning later. With two out in the same inning, Anderson missed a diving catch on Deer's liner to left, which went for a triple, but Milacki got Fryman on a fly to right field for the third out.
The Orioles came back with a run after two outs in the bottom of the third. Leo Gomez singled to left-center, moved up a base as Hoiles walked and scored when Mark McLemore, making his second start of the year in place of Bill Ripken at second base, looped a single to left-center.
It remained 3-1 until the seventh, when Fryman jolted Milacki with a home run to left-center. "I tried to overthrow a slider," said Milacki, "and it stayed up in the middle of the plate. He hit it well."
It, of course, is hardly unusual that the Tigers did all of their damage against Milacki with home runs. "I try not to think that way [about the Tigers' propensity for hitting the long ball], but they have a lot of people in their lineup who can do that.
"I just tried to keep the ball down and keep them off balance," said Milacki, who got his first win in his third start of the season.
"To me, all three of his starts have been pretty much the same," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "In his first game [a 4-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians], he gave up a hit, had a catcher's interference call and then a three-run homer and he never had a chance because we didn't score. In Boston, he left with a 6-3 lead, but we didn't put it away and somebody else [Todd Frohwirth] got the win."
Milacki had a particularly effective changeup yesterday, the pitch that Oates felt made the difference. "If you don't have that pitch, or a breaking ball, you can throw for a strike when you're behind, you're going to get hurt," said Oates. "He got behind a lot of hitters, but he has the ability to make those pitches."
After getting Alan Trammell to hit into a double play to end the eighth inning, Milacki was finished for the day, leaving the closing act to Olson. Cecil Fielder greeted the reliever with a single to center field, causing immediate anguish.
"I don't know how he hit that ball," said Hoiles.
"It stayed in the park, so I was ahead of the game," said Olson, who immediately went to a 3-and-0 count before throwing a strike to Tettleton. With pinch runner Skeeter Barnes running on the next pitch, Tettleton grounded out to first baseman Randy Milligan.
Tony Phillips then walked to put the lead run on base, but Olson came back to strike out Deer and Fryman to end the game.
"I guess I don't know what a 1-2-3 inning is," Olson said. "The good thing is I'm used to it. If you do it [get in trouble] and get out of it, it's OK. But do it and don't get out, and that gets people irritated."
If their trend continues, Orioles pitchers are going to irritate a lot of hitters. In 11 games, the five starters have averaged almost seven innings and have a 2.53 ERA.
That's a sharp contrast to a year ago, when the Orioles were behind by three or more runs 43 times -- and it was a happening if the starter was around for the seventh-inning stretch.