O's cure slump, but treatment ugly

April 25, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For the Orioles, an 11-8 victory over the Kansas City Royals last night was like a heavy dose of cod liver oil. Their six-game losing streak was cured, but boy, was the aftertaste bitter.

The Orioles slugged five homers and accumulated a season-high 18 hits, and yet they barely hung on to win. Starting pitcher Kent Mercker did almost everything possible to lose, blowing one lead of four runs and nearly blowing another, and in the bottom of the ninth Kansas City had the bases loaded with the potential winning run at the plate.

But closer Randy Myers cleaned up his own mess, retiring David Howard on a grounder to end the game. Chris Hoiles hit two homers and Mike Devereaux, Brady Anderson and Cal Ripken hit one apiece -- for Ripken and Devereaux, their first of the season. Ripken had three other hits, for his first four-hit game since June 19, 1995.

Whew. As reporters filed into the office of manager Davey Johnson afterward, he shook his head. A cod liver oil victory, the bitterness stemming from Mercker's continuing tribulations.

"Our offense gave us a big lead and it seemed like it was never safe," Johnson said. "Our starting pitching is struggling, and it just has to improve. [Mercker] is too good of a pitcher to be struggling the way he has.

"He has an explosive fastball, and for some reason he just doesn't use it. . . . It was by some miracle we got five innings [from Mercker]."

Mercker said, "I'm just bad. I'm terrible right now. I stink. There's no other way to look at it."

There was nothing artful to the effort. The bottom line: It was a victory, the Orioles' offense finally doing more damage than the O's pitching staff.

Most of the Orioles hitters have gotten hot at one time or another in the early weeks of the season, but last night they all hit. Devereaux and Anderson bashed homers off Kansas City starter Chris Haney in the second inning, the ninth of the year for Anderson.

Ripken homered in the third, his going 397 feet, and Palmeiro and Ripken had RBI singles in the fourth, chasing Haney from the mound. Hoiles homered in the fifth off former Oriole Terry Clark, and Devereaux drove in another run with a single in the sixth. Hoiles homered again in the ninth, and every member of the Orioles' starting lineup other than Jeffrey Hammonds had at least one hit.

"It was nice to see Hoiles start swinging the bat, and Ripken," Johnson said.

All those hits and runs and the victory should've been simple. The Orioles compiled four-run leads at three junctures. Nevertheless, they struggled to score enough runs for Mercker, whose ERA has soared to 9.45.

Other members of the baseball community -- a general manager and a couple of scouts -- have heard the Orioles are sending out feelers, quietly looking to add another starting pitcher sometime before the July 31 trade deadline. That may have been the genesis of the brief internal talks about acquiring Dwight Gooden from the Yankees. The Orioles are apparently concerned about the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in their rotation, with much justification.

Rookie Jimmy Haynes has temporarily lost his spot in the rotation, but that is hardly a shocker. Lots of young pitchers flounder early in their career, as they discover major-leaguers are less apt to swing at pitches out of the strike zone and more apt to murder bad pitches in the strike zone.

Of greater concern for the Orioles is the early showing of Mercker, the No. 4 starter acquired from the Atlanta Braves last ++ December. He started slowly in spring training and hasn't made much progress.

Ahead of the light-hitting Royals 4-0 in the second inning, Mercker allowed the first four batters to reach base -- including a walk of Jose Offerman, batting .195. Almost immediately Kansas City had tied the score, aided by a couple of wild pitches.

Mercker, pitching coach Pat Dobson said, simply stopped throwing his fastball and threw almost all "breaking balls and changeups. I don't know why." (Mercker said he's been unable to throw his fastball where he wants to, and believes his velocity is down.)

The pattern continued in the fourth inning, after the Orioles scored three to take an 8-4 lead. Offerman doubled and when Mercker fell behind Howard 2-0, the Royals' shortstop launched a two-run homer off a changeup, only the Royals' sixth homer of the year.

Mercker's change repeatedly flopped high and away, Hoiles lurching out of his crouch to keep the ball from flying to the backstop. Mercker's target continually eluded him: if Hoiles set up outside, Mercker often threw inside, and vice versa. No command.

If not for the generosity of Johnson and the fact that the Orioles bullpen will be in demand when Arthur Rhodes starts tonight, Mercker might not have stayed in the game long enough to get a victory. Brian Sackinsky began warming up in the second inning, and in the fourth, and Johnson said later he was one hitter away from relieving Mercker on three occasions.

"I want to show I can pitch," Mercker said. "I want to show I can be good. I haven't done that yet."

Pub Date: 4/25/96

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Kansas City Royals

Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.

Time: 8: 05

TV/Radio: Ch. 13, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Arthur Rhodes (2-0, 0.90) vs. Mike Magnante (0-0, 3.38)

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