Key strikes again, lifts Orioles, 4-1 No. 3 starter turns in another A-No. 1 effort, silences White Sox

Hammonds, Carter hit HRs

Key closes strong April, helps end 4-game slide

May 01, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- The wrong situation found the right man yesterday. Because of it, the Orioles survived April with a winning record along with a shred of hope that an embarrassing two-week stretch may be receding rather than drowning them early.

April's pitcher, Jimmy Key, stepped forward before 11,772 at Comiskey Park to hold down the Chicago White Sox for seven innings of a 4-1 win mere hours after the Orioles had suffered their most complete loss of the season. A battered pitching staff learned it will regain ace Mike Mussina on Sunday. And an entire dugout was reminded of what a well-played game looks like.

"We needed to win a game," said Key, who has started three of the Orioles' five wins since April 14. "We played good today. This is the way we won last year. Hopefully we can build off of it. You can't win two in a row until you've won one in a row."

The win ended a four-game losing streak and a tumble of 11 losses in 14 games. Coming after Wednesday night's 16-7 wipeout, Key's unflappable presence represented a life preserver for a staff consistently rocked the last two weeks. Manager Ray Miller celebrated his 53rd birthday and his team celebrated the end to a month turned cruel.

Home runs by center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds and right fielder Joe Carter accounted for three runs. Breaking out of a 5-for-36 slump, Hammonds also helped set up the Orioles' first run with a second-inning double off White Sox starter Scott Eyre (1-3). Up four runs, the Orioles again retreated into an offensive shell, going 1-for-19 afterward. Key made it enough.

The Orioles survived the month with a 14-13 record after a 10-2 start. Inconsistent starting pitching, including consecutive outings by rookies Nerio Rodriguez and Sidney Ponson the previous two games, has resulted in a well-worn bullpen. When Armando Benitez closed the game with a scoreless ninth inning, he claimed his first save since April 12. Key's strong outing still left the rotation's ERA at 8.17 over the last 14 games.

"When you factor in that we got off to a 10-2 start, it doesn't look too promising," said third baseman Cal Ripken. "But if you look at the big picture, we're still over .500. We had a winning period and we had a slow period but if you average it out we still won more than we lost. That doesn't look so bad."

Thank Key for that.

The Orioles' No. 3 starter raised his career record to 34-14 in

April and 64-33 before June. His four wins this month match his lightning start to last season when he won 11 of his first 12 decisions and left May with a 2.30 ERA. Yesterday's seven innings dropped his ERA to 2.95, 10th-best in the league. Key also raised his career record to 21-8 against the White Sox, including a 7-0 run with a 1.70 ERA in 10 starts since Sept. 2, 1992.

"I've always been a good starter. I've had good Aprils and Mays. I always seem to come out of spring training throwing well. This year is no different," he said, adding, "I've been pretty consistent this month for six starts. We'll see if it holds up for another 30."

The night before, the White Sox ripped into six Orioles pitchers for 15 hits, including six home runs. Key, Alan Mills and Benitez contained them on five hits and allowed only one for extra bases -- Albert Belle's run-scoring double in the fourth inning. Key walked only one, struck out five and was backed by flawless defense.

"I think pitching sets the tone for the game, even playing in the American League," Key said. "We're losing ugly. It's one thing to lose. It's another thing to lose the way we've been losing. That's just not what we're all about as a pitching staff. We've got too many good pitchers here to be pitching this way as a whole."

The Orioles entered the game with a 5.33 ERA, third-worst in the league. Opponents were hitting .285 against them, 12 points higher than the league average. Only the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers have used their bullpens more. Without Mussina -- sidelined since April 17 because of a sliced wart on his right index finger -- a veteran rotation frayed.

"I'd say a few guys are a little bit surprised. I know I am a little bit, and this is my 15th year," Key said. "I think some guys are a little bit surprised that we got off to such a good start and then have it turn around and go the other way."

The level-headed Key at least temporarily returned it to normalcy. He held the White Sox hitless through three innings. By the time center fielder Mike Cameron led off the fourth with a single, the Orioles led 4-0. This time they held instead of repeating Wednesday's crash.

Key escaped a two-out crisis in the sixth inning by getting Robin Ventura to fly out to right field with runners at first and third. Two innings earlier, Ventura struck out with Belle at second base.

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