O's fall for A's spoiler act, 12-9 7-run 8th drops Orioles 1 1/2 back

September 11, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The Orioles had to know there would be nights like this. They are trying to win a division title with their relief closer on the disabled list, and it isn't going to be easy.

The bullpen committee that has filled in so well for Gregg Olson the past month could not fill a three-inning hole left by Mike Mussina last night. The result was a 12-9 loss to the Oakland Athletics that dropped the Orioles 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East.

It had started out to be another one of those magical games that lead everyone to the same rose-colored conclusions about the potential for postseason play this year in Baltimore. The Orioles shrugged off an early four-run deficit as if it was nothing and carried a two-run lead into the middle innings.

The A's shaved that lead to one in the fifth, and that's the way it remained until the bullpen by committee -- represented by Mark Williamson, Jim Poole and Alan Mills -- gave up seven runs in the eighth inning. The A's did it to the Orioles just the way they did it three times against the Blue Jays, with a no-name lineup that began this eastern road trip five days ago 31 games under .500.

Why Mussina left so soon was not immediately apparent, but he said after the game that he experienced some stiffness in his right shoulder blade -- the same area where persistent soreness forced him onto the disabled list from July 22 to Aug. 20.

"It kind of acted up on me," Mussina said, "but I'm not hurt. Generally, it was the same area. I didn't hurt it. It was just that every inning I went out there to warm up, it was tighter and tighter. Plus I wasn't pitching that well, so it was best for everyone. I don't want to hurt myself to the point where I can't pitch the rest of the season."

He gave up five earned runs in six innings, but had recovered from a four-run second and thrown only 84 pitches. Williamson came on to pitch a scoreless seventh before the game unraveled in a shower of Oakland hits.

Dave Henderson and Ruben Sierra opened the eighth inning with back-to-back singles, bringing manager Johnny Oates to the mound and Poole in from the bullpen. Oates went to the left-hander to pitch to the left-handed Troy Neel, who tied the score with a ground-rule double.

The managerial strategy raised two questions. Why did Oates leave Williamson in to face Sierra? That's easy. Sierra had three hits in 17 lifetime at-bats against him. Why did Oates then bring on the left-hander to face Neel? That's tougher to answer, because Neel came into the game with a .348 average against left-handed pitching -- 85 points higher than against right-handers.

Just the night before, Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston intentionally walked Sierra to match left-hander Tony Castillo against Neel in the ninth inning and paid a similar price.

Poole also gave up a tie-breaking two-run single to Brent Gates in an ugly inning that featured two of the four errors committed by the Orioles last night. Mills followed him to the mound and got two quick outs before he also was charged with a couple of runs before the inning came to an end.

It wasn't pretty, but Oates charged to the defense of a relief corps that kept the club from self-destructing in the first half of the season.

"The bullpen has done an outstanding job," he said. "We wouldn't be where we are without the bullpen. Go back and look at the bullpen stats during the 10-game winning streak [in June]. We wouldn't have been close to the top of the standings without it."

The eighth-inning rally overshadowed big offensive performances by David Segui (two hits, four RBI) and Harold Reynolds (two hits, two RBI) and wiped the smiles off the faces of those in a sellout crowd of 46,162. The Orioles came back to score three runs in the ninth, but A's closer Dennis Eckersley restored order and recorded his 32nd save.

Right-hander Kelly Downs (4-9) got the victory for pitching 2 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of starter Todd Van Poppel, surviving a fifth-inning search by the umpiring crew after Oates accused him of scuffing the ball.

"He was scuffing the ball with sandpaper or something," Oates said, "but that's not why we lost the ballgame. We lost because we had poor defense, poor base-running, poor pitching and poor situational hitting."

The Orioles could be forgiven if they had come to expect things to go their way.

They had closed to a game of first place when everything went their way on Wednesday night, and on Thursday they shaved a half-game off their division deficit without showing up at the park.

The only thing standing between the Orioles and first place, it seemed, were the last-place A's, who had lost eight of the first nine games of the seasons series. It looked like a promising situation, unless you've been looking at the out-of-town scoreboard the past few days.

The A's were a major contributor to the Orioles' sudden surge, sweeping the first-place Blue Jays earlier this week.

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