ARLINGTON, Texas -- Fernando Valenzuela made his long-awaited return to the mound as a starting pitcher last night, but it wasn't exactly a sentimental journey. He blew up in the early innings and manager Johnny Oates blew up in the clubhouse after the Orioles moved to the brink of a three-game sweep with an 8-3 loss to the Texas Rangers.
The 32-year-old left-hander, whose comeback has captured the imagination of baseball fans all over, did nothing to impress the Rangers during an ugly 2 1/3 -inning performance at Arlington Stadium.
Valenzuela gave up seven runs on five hits on the way to a lopsided defeat that left Oates wondering what he has to do to get the struggling Orioles turned around. He locked the clubhouse door for 20 minutes after the game and seared the team with a tirade on its lackluster play during the first nine days of the new season.
The club's 1-6 start equals the second-worst seven-game start in Orioles history. They went 0-7 in the course of their 21-game losing streak at the start of 1988 and went 1-6 in 1955 and 1984.
Valenzuela was not the answer, but he wasn't supposed to be. The stakes had gone up considerably since he won a place in the starting rotation with a strong performance in spring training. The club entered the season needing a spot starter, but took the field last night needing someone -- anyone -- to put an end to the season-opening slump.
It was the kind of situation that used to be made for Valenzuela, whose clutch performances in the 1980s made him one of the most dependable big-game pitchers in the National League. But he was not equal to it in his first major-league start since 1991.
"Everything I did went wrong," Valenzuela said after the first-place Rangers got their sixth win in seven games. "I just didn't have any idea of what I was doing. It's hard to have an idea when you pitch one inning in 13 days. Sometimes that doesn't help. You feel strong, but it's not good for your location."
Valenzuela went to the mound with a 60-pitch limit and had exhausted it by the time Oates mercifully removed him with the bases loaded and one out in the third. The Rangers went on to score five times in that inning and defeat the Orioles for the fourth time in as many tries.
Things have to improve eventually, but not necessarily tonight. The Rangers will start future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan in the
series finale against Ben McDonald, who lasted just 1 1/3 innings in his first start of 1993. Severe weather has been predicted for the second day in a row, but the Orioles could not even get a break from Mother Nature last night.
Mist had turned into rain by the time Valenzuela entered the game in the bottom of the first, but not enough to keep him from realizing his dream of rejoining a major-league starting rotation after nearly two years on the outside. The question now is whether he will stay there.
Oates wasn't saying, but he seemed to indicate that Valenzuela would get another chance.
"The only problem I saw was that he was trying to overthrow the ball," Oates said. "The adrenalin was flowing. I'd be willing to bet that he never threw the ball harder than he did tonight. He was trying to throw too hard, but he's healthy and we'll see how it goes from here."
Valenzuela isn't taking his next start for granted. He knows he walked into a situation where he must produce to stay in the rotation.
"I don't know what they're thinking," he said. "We've lost some games, but we've only played seven. When something like this happens, everything looks worse. I'll be ready when they call on me again and I hope that it won't be too long."
He got off to a promising start. The Rangers went quietly in his first inning. Leadoff hitter Gary Redus hit a routine fly ball to left. Rafael Palmeiro popped weakly to third. Jose Canseco hit a routine grounder to shortstop.
It would get tougher in the second, when major-league home run champion Juan Gonzalez lined a 1-0 pitch off the left-field fence for a double. Considering Gonzalez's four-homer performance in the first three games of the season series, perhaps that was an acceptable outcome, but Julio Franco made it costly with a ground double down the left-field line.
Valenzuela got Dean Palmer on a soft popup, but complicated his situation with a wild pickoff throw to second that moved Franco to third and a wild screwball to bring him home.
The top of the Rangers' lineup was not fooled a second time around. Redus led off the third with a long homer to begin a five-run bat-around that brought an early end to Valenzuela's long-anticipated evening.
He did not have good command of his breaking pitches and he was hurt repeatedly on offspeed stuff up in the strike zone. The Rangers took advantage of a walk and a pair of one-out singles by Gonzalez and Franco to increase their lead to 4-1 before Valenzuela hit Palmer with a pitch to load the bases and bring Oates out of the dugout.
Enter relief pitcher Alan Mills, who gave up a three-run double to catcher Ivan Rodriguez that left Valenzuela with the worst possible outcome. In his three major-league starts since he was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1991, he has worked nine innings and given up 17 runs.