1-run hole ditches O's again, 4-3 Ripken's first '98 error helps Tampa deal O's 7th 1-run loss in row

HR off Mills averts sweep

Key says 'good teams win close games'

May 11, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- At the top of Ray Miller's to-do list this season was a commitment to winning close games, the kind that shouldered the Orioles out of last postseason after accounting for almost 40 percent of last year's 64 losses.

Maybe they're just procrastinating. Maybe it will get done. But yesterday, baseball's most experienced team again manufactured a way to lose a one-run game, this time 4-3 to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who broke an eight-game losing streak at Tropicana Field thanks to two unearned runs.

The narrow loss prevented the Orioles from sweeping the expansioneers. Their failure to win in tight quarters has kept the Orioles (18-17) from establishing the necessary momentum to break free of a four-week malaise. They have lost seven straight one-run games, including three among their past four losses.

Completing a day when every run scored via the long ball, Devil Rays center fielder Quinton McCracken broke a 3-3 tie by leading off the eighth inning with a home run off Alan Mills (0-1). The homer was the switch-hitting McCracken's first in 148 at-bats this season and only the seventh in three seasons.

"You're not going to win every game by three, four or five runs. You've got to win close games," said starting pitcher Jimmy Key, who allowed only four hits in six innings, but couldn't overcome a third-inning defensive misadventure. "That says a lot about why we're just a .500 team right now. Good teams win close games."

A messy two-out exchange involving Gold Glove infielders Cal Ripken and Rafael Palmeiro extended the inning. Without a chance in the series' first two games, Ripken failed to field cleanly McCracken's sidespinning grounder to third. He retrieved it, but then one-hopped a throw that Palmeiro failed to dig out of the dirt.

Ripken received his first error of the season. Palmeiro, who left the clubhouse without comment, reacted as if the fault was his.

"It was a physical mistake. If it was a mental error, I'd be upset," said Miller, while refraining to draw conclusions from the club's struggles in one-run situations.

Thanks to the extra out, Wade Boggs got to yank a two-run homer for a 3-0 Devil Rays' lead.

The Orioles didn't go away. In the sixth inning, back-to-back two-out home runs by B. J. Surhoff and Joe Carter tied the game off Devil Rays starter Wilson Alvarez.

Key said the problem in close games "isn't one specific area. It's everything -- pitching, defense, hitting."

Yesterday's loss had a little of each. Aside from Ripken's costly error, the Orioles failed to take advantage of two chances to break out, one against Alvarez and the second against ex-Orioles prospect Esteban Yan (3-0), who received the win in return for two scoreless innings.

"We didn't play bad today; we just didn't play good enough to win," Key said.

With the score already tied in the sixth and two men on, Ripken drilled a shot back to the mound that struck Alvarez in the backside. Instead of ricocheting, the ball remained in front of the left-hander, who recovered to get the out, then left the game.

"I hit a line drive as hard as I can hit it. If that doesn't get through, I'm in trouble. But it hit him and stayed down," Ripken said. "A small window of opportunity ended."

Mostly because of his earlier two-run homer, Surhoff's most telling at-bat came in the seventh inning against Yan with two outs and runners at first and second. After Jeffrey Hammonds had struck out, Surhoff grounded to second to end the threat. The Orioles, 0-for-4 yesterday with runners in scoring position, never produced another runner.

Again, the Orioles couldn't find a way to overcome four runs. They are 2-16 when surrendering more than three runs, a disturbing statistic within a league that has a 4.83 ERA. "We had two situations to break the game open. Cal hit a rocket off [Alvarez's] butt, and I grounded to second. That was it," Surhoff said.

Key didn't dodge his responsibility, either. Though two of his runs were unearned, the mistake pitch to Boggs came from his hand. "I felt I still should have gotten out of it. As a pitcher, you've got to be able to make a pitch with two outs to get out of it with nothing. I made a bad pitch [to Boggs]. He hit it well. It cost us two runs."

How much these one-run losses will later mean is unclear, but they already have put the Orioles in a difficult situation, eight games out of first place.

"Good teams win one-run games," Key said. "I had no idea we had lost that many. We're not going to win anything if we don't win close games. Nobody does."

The Orioles have played 23 games since defeating the Chicago White Sox, 4-3, April 14 for their last one-run win.

Unable to win close games, the Orioles haven't been able to piece together an extended winning streak, either. They have won consecutive games only twice since April 15. Since their seven-game win streak after their Opening Day loss -- which included three one-run decisions -- they haven't been able to win three straight.

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