If there ever was a time for Bob Milacki to shake his slump, last night appeared to be it. Winless in his four previous starts, Milacki was facing a Chicago White Sox team that he had beaten in two previous starts this season.
But the third meeting would be anything but a breeze for Milacki, who gave up six runs in 3 2/3 innings in an 8-4 loss that dropped the Orioles four games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.
And as Milacki (5-6) walked off the field to boos from the crowd of 45,451 -- the Orioles' 20th straight sellout -- he had to be wondering when his next start might be.
That start for Milacki, who left the clubhouse early and was unavailable for comment, is scheduled for Sunday against the Minnesota Twins. And as of last night, Orioles manager Johnny Oates was not ready to make changes.
"Not until we get somebody better," Oates said, when asked whether he was ready to replace Milacki in the rotation. "He's pitched some good ball games for us. Last time he pitched against these guys, he pitched well. He'll be out there Sunday, as far as I know."
But things could change between now and Sunday, the last day before the All-Star break. The loss last night was the Orioles' third in their past four games, and the risk of falling any farther behind Toronto -- the four-game deficit is the Orioles biggest since April 17, when they were also four back -- could prompt a change.
In what has become a pattern, Milacki was victimized early. Tim Raines led off the game with a single to right field and stole second -- the first of five stolen bases for the White Sox. Milacki appeared to have the situation in command with consecutive strikeouts of Robin Ventura and Warren Newson, but designated hitter George Bell (three singles, two RBI) reached across the plate and tapped a single to left field for a 1-0 Chicago lead.
It was the 18th run Milacki has given up in the first inning this season, and also the 11th time in his 17 starts that an opponent has scored in its opening at-bat.
"George Bell just stuck his bat out there," Oates said of the hit. "I'm not taking anything away from him, but it fell in."
The Orioles tied the game in their half of the first after Cal Ripken singled and scored two batters later on Randy Milligan's single to left.
But the White Sox runners continued to get good jumps on
Milacki, which resulted in the go-ahead run in the second. After singling to lead off the inning, Lance Johnson stole second and third. He scored when Carlton Fisk grounded out to shortstop with one out to put Chicago up 2-1, and the White Sox would maintain the lead.
"We have how long he gets to the plate -- and he's probably one of the slowest," White Sox manager Gene Lamont said of Milacki's delivery.
By the end of the third inning, Milacki was done, and so were the Orioles. After getting the first two batters out, Milacki walked Newson, who then stole second. Facing Bell again, Milacki got the count to 2-2, which prompted a rare mound appearance by Oates.
"I just wanted him to make good pitches," said Oates, who normally goes to the mound only to make a pitching change. "Bell was up again and I didn't want the same thing to happen."
It did. Bell's line single to center fell just in front of Mike Devereaux and gave Chicago a 2-1 lead. Then Dan Pasqua, getting a rare start at first base after Frank Thomas came down with a head cold, hit a two-run home run to right field (his first homer since April 21) for a 5-1 lead that was never seriously threatened.
The Orioles scored three in the sixth to pull within 7-4, and the only other scoring was an RBI single by Lance Johnson in the seventh. Wilson Alvarez, who gave up four runs in 5 2/3 innings, was around long enough to pick up the win. It was just his second start against the Orioles. The first, last August, resulted in a no-hitter.
"We wanted seven innings from him, but he threw too many pitches," Lamont said. "He was 3-2 a lot and had to work from behind too much tonight. It doesn't matter how good your stuff is if you are always pitching behind in the count."
It doesn't matter how good opposing pitcher's stuff is as long as the Orioles continue to struggle at the plate. Last night was the fifth straight game in which they have failed to hit a home run, their longest drought of the season.
And Ripken's slump continued. His single in the first inning ended an 0-for-16 string, but he failed to get another hit and bounced into the game-ending double play. Since his career-high 17-game hitting streak ended last month, Ripken is 3-for-34 (.093). Last night, he extended his string of games without an RBI at 13, tying the longest drought of his career, which was set over a 13-game span in April 1982.
"Cal's the last of my worries," Oates said after the game.
Milacki's problems are probably somewhere near the top. In addition to hitting him hard, the White Sox stole five stolen bases while Milacki was on the mound. The right-hander has now gone 21 starts without a complete game, dating to a five-hit shutout of the New York Yankees last September.
"When you're struggling and you're not doing well the remedy I know for something like that is to sit down and look at the tape," said Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman. "You need to have a meeting of the minds, set a course and go on that course."
The course has been a rocky one for Milacki. But, before today's game, Milacki and Bosman will sit down go over ways that might improve his performance.
"Fortunately, he's healthy. His arm feels good and as long as you're able to throw the baseball you can go to the bullpen and do something about your plight," Bosman said. "We'll just keep working. That's the formula of this staff: a lot of hard work and making sure we communicate."