BOSTON -- The Orioles have had everything their way over the past couple of weeks, but their 10-game hot streak could not survive Fernando Valenzuela's cold shoulder yesterday at Fenway Park.
Valenzuela has had trouble getting started this year, and another rocky first inning was enough to put an end to the Orioles' longest winning streak in nearly six years. The Boston Red Sox scored four times and Roger Clemens went on to pitch a strong eight innings in a 4-2 victory that also ended his club's seven-game losing streak.
"I've been a little bit of a slow starter," said Valenzuela, who walked the leadoff hitter in the first inning and then gave up a run-scoring triple to right fielder Bob Zupcic. "I'm feeling good, but I was trying to be too fine in the first inning and I got myself into trouble."
He also gave up a single to Mike Greenwell in the first, but came within an out of getting off cheaply before a ground ball by shortstop John Valentin glanced off the glove of third baseman Leo Gomez for an RBI single and Scott Cooper drove in two more runs with a double down the right-field line.
Valenzuela (2-6) has given up 32 earned runs this year, 12 of them in the first inning. He has had some dubious defensive assistance on a number of occasions, but it appears obvious that he requires some time to get comfortable on the mound.
This time, he went on to pitch into the eighth inning without giving up another hit, but the Orioles weren't able to make much headway in their attempt to come back against Clemens. The Red Sox ace worked eight innings and gave up two runs on six hits to improve his record to 7-5. He struck out nine and seemed strong enough to finish, but manager Butch Hobson brought on closer Jeff Russell to pitch a scoreless ninth for his 14th save.
The Orioles scored a run in the first inning on a one-out single by Mark McLemore and an RBI single by Harold Baines, but their only other offensive statement was a line drive by Brady Anderson that hit the foul pole 300 feet down the right-field line for his fifth home run.
Perhaps that would have been enough if the Orioles had played a perfect game on defense, but they had to know that they weren't going to get enough run production against Clemens to gloss over any major mistakes.
The game came down to the first-inning ground ball that skipped past Gomez to bring home the go-ahead run in the first inning. If he could have stopped the ball, Gomez might have gotten a force play at third base to end the inning with only one run across. Instead, it grazed his glove and dribbled toward the corner in left field.
"He knows that he has to keep that ball in front of him," said manager Johnny Oates, who rarely second-guesses a player. "That's just an observation, but at worst, I think he has to keep the ball in the infield."
Gomez disagreed. He said he gave it his best shot, but didn't react quickly enough to cut off the ball.
"It was a base hit," he said. "As soon as he hit it, I went for it, but you can't see very well in the daytime here and I wasn't playing that close to the line."
He is not known for his lateral movement, but Gomez has made himself into a steady third baseman. He is struggling at the plate -- he struck out three times yesterday -- but he had made some impressive defensive plays during the winning streak. This was the exception.
Oates was not ultra-critical of his third baseman, just disappointed that Gomez was unable to come up with the ball and save Valenzuela from another hard-luck defeat.
"When you're facing a guy like Roger Clemens, you've got to make every defensive play," Oates said. "We didn't give the game away. We had a chance. It was a play we had a chance to make, but that ball wasn't a routine boot."
It happened at a pivotal juncture of the game. The Red Sox had just made a couple of running mistakes that could have had a negative psychological impact on a struggling team. Zupcic had failed to score from third on Greenwell's single, which was short-hopped by Devereaux in center, then was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a nubber by Andre Dawson.
If the Orioles had gotten off with just one run, it could have been a discouraging afternoon for the Red Sox, who had gone from 4 1/2 games ahead of the Orioles to 2 1/2 behind them during their skid and the Orioles' streak.
"I think that changed the complexion of the game," Oates said. "If we make that play after the base-running mistakes, who knows how it affects them."
Valenzuela went on to work 7 1/3 innings and give up four runs on four hits and five walks. He went the last 6 1/3 without giving up a hit, but he was not particularly happy with his performance.
"I think the problem is that I've walked a lot of guys over the last three starts," he said. "When you walk somebody, that's no different than a hit. That's something that has to change."