Fernando Valenzuela stared right down the barrel at the defending World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays last night . . . and he didn't blink. He just reminded everyone in the Camden Yards crowd of 46,409 why he was considered one of the big-game pitchers of the 1980s.
The Orioles needed someone to pick them up off the floor after a discouraging defeat the night before, and Valenzuela needed a pickup himself after a string of five winless starts threatened his place in the rotation. He delivered a six-hit shutout and a 6-0 victory that averted a potentially demoralizing series sweep.
"I know I feel a whole lot better," said manager Johnny Oates, who had taken the Blue Jays' comeback victory on Tuesday night very hard. "I had a rough night last night, but these guys picked me up."
Valenzuela dueled into the middle innings with former Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Dave Stewart before the Orioles' offense came alive to break the game open with two runs in the fifth and three in the seventh. The victory pulled the Orioles back within six games of first place.
The shutout was Valenzuela's second of the year, tying him with teammate MikeMussina and 11 other pitchers for the major-league lead, but it was the first time this season that the Blue Jays have been blanked by anyone.
Valenzuela (3-7) pitched a rain-shortened two-hit shutout for his first win in nearly three years on May 18, but that game did not carry nearly the significance of this one.
Of course, it was all a matter of perception. The Orioles went 6-3 in a homestand against the three teams ahead of them in the AL East race, and last night's game was being viewed as a must-win situation.
The sellout crowd obviously thought it was important. Valenzuela got a standing ovation after the eighth inning and another one that lasted for the final two outs of the ninth. He also got some offensive support for a change, much of it from designated hitter Harold Baines, who had three hits and drove in the first three runs.
The win gave the Orioles a 20-7 record in June, their best record in any month since they went 23-6 in June 1979. It also gave them a tremendous lift going into a seven-game trip that begins tonight in Chicago.
"This was a big game for the team and me," Valenzuela said. "And it gave me more confidence for the next time. This was a big game and I want to thank my teammates for the way they supported me."
It was a pivotal game for a lot of reasons. The Orioles already had broken their string of eight straight series victories with losses Monday and Tuesday, but that just made it more critical for the club to bounce back and avoid falling eight games out of first.
It also was an important game for Valenzuela, who again had reached a point where he must produce or risk the loss of his place in the rotation -- and perhaps the major leagues. He had been hit hard in his last start and had not won since June 2.
There was a time when his lack of success could be written off to bad luck and lack of run support, but that reasoning figured to wear thin as soon as left-hander Arthur Rhodes got ready to return to the rotation. Rhodes, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery on May 18, could be back soon after the All-Star break.
No one is ready to speculate on who would be displaced by his return, but it obviously would come down to Valenzuela or left-hander Jamie Moyer. That's why Valenzuela needed to do something to solidify his place in the club's pitching plans.
"I don't know Freddie well enough to know what is going on
inside his head, so I don't know if he felt that way," Oates said. "He knows we're going to have to make some pitching decisions and we can't continue to carry 12 pitchers, but I know that he's pitched well enough to win a whole lot more games than he has."
Valenzuela has spent the past few weeks working with pitching coach Dick Bosman to figure out why his control has been erratic in the early innings. They worked on his mechanics and they also changed his warm-up routine last night.
"I was dropping my arm down a little," Valenzuela said. "I was pushing the ball, so my fastball was sailing out of the strike zone."
Bosman also had Valenzuela pitch a simulated inning in the bullpen before taking the mound yesterday. He'll find out the next few starts whether that made a difference, but he liked what he saw last night.
"I'm very encouraged," Bosman said. "I think we came out of the bullpen tonight better prepared. He got his arm up much better and you could tell by the location of the screwball and his other pitches. He had a lot better pop and he got a lot more ground balls."
The club needed a big effort from the starting rotation and Valenzuela delivered in a big way, but the offense kept everyone in suspense with an early-inning performance reminiscent of the one that cost Ben McDonald a chance to win Tuesday night.