When Rick Sutcliffe was obtained as a free agent last off-season, Orioles manager Johnny Oates said he hoped Sutcliffe would provide a calming influence for the younger pitchers on the staff.
That logic worked early on, especially at home, where the 35-year-old seemed invincible.
But lately, as in last night's 6-2 loss to the California Angels, Sutcliffe has lost a good chunk of the Camden Yards magic he had accumulated in his first three starts.
"The last two first innings have been where I've just missed," said Sutcliffe, who gave up six runs in 2 2/3 innings. "I got to within one pitch of getting out of it [both times]. You've just got to make those pitches."
Despite the loss, the Orioles remained just a half-game behind the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays, who lost to the Chicago White Sox, 5-2.
In his first three starts at home, Sutcliffe pitched to an 0.70 ERA, including shutouts over the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers.
However, in his past three starts here, Sutcliffe has worked into the seventh inning only once and has given up 18 runs in 25 2/3 innings for an ERA of 11.85.
In addition, he has walked 10 and given up four home runs, including a two-run shot last night to California first baseman Lee Stevens that one-hopped the warehouse in right field and traveled 430 feet, the longest drive in Oriole Park history, before 41,146, the ninth sellout crowd.
"I can't keep putting up three or four runs early," said Sutcliffe. "That's not fair to them [teammates]."
Oates was in agreement, but remained behind his veteran right-hander.
"He's just gotten bit by the big inning," Oates said. "He's had a four, a three, and a three. That will jump it [his ERA] to 12 real quick."
As Sutcliffe's Oriole Park magic appears on the wane, Alan Mills' has yet to vanish. The long reliever added 4 2/3 innings to a scoreless streak that has reached 15 innings at Oriole Park. He yielded only one hit and two walks last night.
"Alan's done an outstanding job each time he's got the ball here," Oates said of the long reliever who was recalled from the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings on April 16.
Mills might have earned a win if Orioles batters had had success against California starter Mark Langston.
Langston, whose strikeouts-to-innings pitched ratio coming into this season was fourth on the all-time list among pitchers who have worked at least 1,800 innings, was effective, striking out six, including Brady Anderson three times.
The only blemishes on Langston's seven-inning record were a run in the first and a bases-empty home run in the seventh to reserve catcher Jeff Tackett, who has two hits all season -- both homers.
By contrast, every batter in the Angels order got a hit. California had two home runs and two triples.
Sutcliffe attributed part of his problem to a sinking fastball that refuses to go down.
"The sinking fastball is supposed to give up ground balls," Sutcliffe said. "It's an adjustment I can make. It's just frustrating to go out there and not challenge people with your good stuff."
Oates also was not overwhelmed by Sutcliffe's fastball.
"The first couple of times out here, he had a much better fastball," Oates said. "It looked like the ball to Stevens didn't have anything on it."
About the only highlight the Orioles mustered was a dazzling catch by Mike Devereaux in the fourth inning. He robbed Chad Curtis of a home run, leaping over the fence just to the left of dead center field to pull the drive back.
By then, it was probably too late for the Orioles, who saw a return to the bad, old days of last season, when opponents scored early and often.
The Orioles trailed by three or more by the fourth inning 43 times in 1991. Last night, they got a flashback.
Sutcliffe got himself into a jam in the first inning, allowing singles to left to Curtis and Junior Felix, then walking Stevens with two outs. Former Oriole Rene Gonzales tripled into the right-field corner -- his first lifetime hit against Baltimore -- to clear the bases.
Gary Gaetti grounded to short, ending the inning, but Sutcliffe, who gave up four first-inning runs in his previous start, against the Oakland Athletics on Monday night, yielded three runs and threw 29 pitches in the first inning.
The Orioles responded in the bottom of the inning. After Anderson struck out, Devereaux doubled into the left-field corner, and scored on Cal Ripken's single to left.
However, Langston struck out Glenn Davis and got Randy Milligan to hit into a fielder's choice to end the inning.
Luis Polonia tripled to right-center with two out in the second, but was stranded when Curtis struck out.
Still, it seemed Sutcliffe was struggling. In the third inning, it again cost him.
Von Hayes doubled off the Tall Wall in right field. Then, Stevens ended a personal 0-for-20 drought against Baltimore pitching with his mammoth home run to right.
One batter later, Gaetti had homered over the 364-foot mark in left-center field. Mike Fitzgerald followed with a sharp single to left, and Sutcliffe, who threw 60 pitches total, had his earliest exit of the season, leaving after giving up six runs and eight hits in 2 2/3 innings.
` Magical it wasn't.
Sutcliffe at home
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..W-L.. ..ERA
First three starts:.. .3-0.. ..0.70
Past three starts:.. ..0-2.. .11.85