The toughest stretch of the season stands just ahead, and the Orioles are in a slump.
Not a major slump. They have lost four of their past six games and have struggled to create any offensive excitement. But it is a definite change in direction for the team with the best record in baseball.
The New York Mets cuffed left-hander Jimmy Key around in the early innings and took the deciding game of the three-game interleague series, 4-1, yesterday on an overcast afternoon at Camden Yards.
Bernard Gilkey hit a bases-empty homer in the first inning and Butch Huskey hit a two-run shot in the third to lend a helping hand to the crosstown rival New York Yankees, who pulled to within 6 1/2 games of first place in the American League East with a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Expos at Yankee Stadium.
Mets right-hander Rick Reed pitched a strong seven innings, giving up just a run on four hits, the only Orioles' score coming in the sixth inning on B. J. Surhoff's 16th home run of the year.
"You hold a team to four runs, you ought to be in the hunt," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson, "but we couldn't get anything going on [Reed]."
The Orioles just emerged from a month-long roll that solidified their place atop the division standings, but most of the credit for that has gone to the pitching staff. The offensive production has been sporadic -- an average of 3.8 runs the past 12 games -- but the club generally has been getting enough runs to win.
The level of competition is about to rise dramatically, which doesn't bode well in the wake of consecutive series losses to the Kansas City Royals and Mets. The Orioles open a three-game series today against the well-stocked Florida Marlins and then travel to New York for a potentially huge four-game series against the Yankees.
Johnson doesn't seem particularly concerned. The Orioles still hold a comfortable division lead and are in little danger of missing the playoffs, but they do not want to cede the momentum they have built over the course of one of the best seasons in club history.
"There's never been any indication of that," Johnson said. "When we need to play good, we've played good."
The Orioles were in a more critical situation more than a month ago, when they came off a 2-5 homestand with their division lead down to 3 1/2 games, but they collected themselves during a grueling three-week stretch that included just three games in Baltimore. They arrived in Florida last night with the best road record in the major leagues (44-22), and don't think that is a coincidence.
"We've got a tough road trip ahead," said Key, "but we've played very well on the road so far. Let's suit up and see what happens."
Key (14-8) struggled with his location early and went on to give up four runs on six hits over six innings of work. He lost for the
seventh time in his last 10 decisions, a span that stretches all the way back to the first week of interleague play in June.
"That [location] is always my problem when I get hit," Key said. "If those pitches go for base hits, that's one thing, but when they go for home runs, that hurts. It seems like right now they are going for home runs."
The veteran left-hander has won just once since July 21, even though his ERA over his eight starts since then is a respectable 3.81. The Orioles have scored more than four runs in a game he has started only twice since he defeated the Atlanta Braves for his 11th victory on June 13.
"Our offense was a little cold and it wasn't one of Jimmy's best games," Johnson said. "He was missing a little bit early and getting behind. He needs to keep the ball down and stay ahead of the hitters. The first home run was a fastball in the middle of the plate. Huskey's was a changeup. I didn't think he got that much of it, but he hit it a long way."
Reed (11-8) did not allow a base runner through the first three innings and retired 10 straight batters before Jeff Reboulet broke through with an infield hit in the fourth. The Orioles had more than one runner on base in just two innings and never made a serious bid to erase an early four-run deficit.
"He has had only three or five starts this year that you wouldn't be proud of," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said of Reed. "He did a masterful job of pitching in and out. His control was exceptional."
Surhoff broke up the shutout with a one-out shot in the sixth that barely cleared the fence in right-center field. He's batting .300 with eight extra-base hits and 10 RBIs in his last 16 games, but the home run was only his second since July 27.
Reed worked through the seventh, then gave way to setup man Mel Rojas, who pitched the eighth and turned the game over to veteran closer John Franco. Franco did not appear to be particularly sharp, falling behind several hitters in the ninth, but the Orioles still went down quietly enough to earn him his 33rd save of the year.
The Orioles are set to face a lot more tough pitching over the next week, but first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said that the club's flat offensive performance over the past week is not a matter of serious concern.
"Why should it concern me?" he said. "I think everybody goes through that once in a while."
Opponent: Florida Marlins
Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami
Time: 4: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (15-5, 3.30) vs. Marlins' Tony Saunders (3-5, 3.77)
Pub Date: 9/01/97