O's silence Twins, 4-0 Erickson hits stride with 5-hitter to win his 1st game in month

Mechanical flaw corrected

Palmeiro, Alomar HR

shutout 3rd in 7 games

May 12, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- It took Scott Erickson six traumatic starts to hit bottom. He needed only six inches to get back on top.

Ending four weeks of personal frustration and organizational worry, Erickson implemented a mechanical adjustment discovered only Saturday to deal a five-hit, 4-0 complete game at the Minnesota Twins before 9,317 at the Metrodome last night. Once again, Erickson resembled the pitcher with the heaviest sinker in baseball. Once again, the Orioles believe they see the foundation of a potent starting rotation.

"If there was ever an example for every pitcher in baseball, that game right there was it," said a relieved manager Ray Miller.

Home runs by Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar mixed with Harold Baines' RBI single for enough offense. Palmeiro's fifth-inning homer not only provided the Orioles a 1-0 lead, it gave them their first hit.

Erickson (4-3) broke a disturbing run of five winless starts by rediscovering the devastating sinker and slider that had eluded him since an April 1 complete game against Kansas City. The shutout was the Orioles' third in seven games and also represented their second complete-game shutout in three games.

Paired against soft-tossing Twins starter Bob Tewksbury (3-5) in a lightning-paced pitcher's duel, Erickson emerged the superior pitcher. A pinata for most of his previous eight starts, Erickson stuffed the Twins on 15 ground-ball outs and five strikeouts. Only twice did a Twins base runner reach third base. Of Erickson's 104 pitches, 80 were strikes. The complete game represented his first win since April 12 and halted a disturbing five-game slide in which he surrendered 46 hits in 27 innings.

"It feels good to get back to something that's more successful," said Erickson.

In his previous start -- a 14-5 mauling at Cleveland last Wednesday -- Erickson allowed seven runs on eight hits in only 3 1/3 innings. Even including Erickson's mistake by the lake, the rotation has compiled a 2.54 ERA in the last seven games. When the Orioles began the season 10-2, the rotation compiled a 2.78 ERA.

Since Erickson's previous start, pitching coach Mike Flanagan had discovered that the right-hander had shortened his stride by about six inches, a significant amount that caused his pitches to elevate and straighten. Flanagan described it as a "premature" release. In the six starts he had not completed, Erickson had compiled a 9.10 ERA and averaged fewer than five innings. The absence of Mike Mussina only made the situation more critical.

"I was looking. Mike was looking," related Miller. "We were looking at films and everything. Sometimes you don't see the forest for the trees. You look at release, you look at angle of the body and where the arm is coming and everything looks the same. Mike looked and thought he saw that the stride was markedly shorter. That would seem to cut off the sinker and leave a few more pitches up."

On Saturday, Flanagan had stepped off Erickson's stride

heel-to-toe during a side session at Tropicana Field. He came up a half-step shy. Reminded to extend further through his pitches, Erickson immediately noted improvement.

The flaw is a recurring one that plagued Erickson before his arrival in Baltimore in 1995 when Flanagan was serving his first term as Orioles pitching coach.

"Mike told me the first time we talked last year that he had never seen such a big man with such a short stride," recalled Miller.

Erickson theorized that experimenting with an ill-fated changeup brought on his relapse. "It wasn't so much an adjustment as it was going back to basics. I wasted so much time with the changeup and all that [stuff] it had thrown off my normal delivery," he groused.

Asked if he thought Erickson's theory well-founded, Flanagan conceded, "It's possible. With a changeup you want to get your foot down as quickly as possible. He's always messing with an off-speed pitch and it may have affected his stride. But he got back out front and the arm speed came back. Everything was where it was supposed to be."

Tewksbury and Erickson roared through the first four innings without allowing a base runner. In one stretch, Erickson retired eight straight hitters on ground balls before finishing off the fourth inning with a strikeout of Paul Molitor. The Twins didn't put a hard swing on a ball until Orlando Merced began the fifth with a line drive snared by right fielder Eric Davis.

Tewksbury lives by throwing first-pitch strikes and allowing fewer than one walk per nine innings. He showed no fear against a lineup that has recently depended on home runs for its scoring.

Palmeiro had no trouble extending that trend leading off the fifth inning, but not before he received second life from plate umpire Rick Reed. Frozen by Tewksbury's 2-2 pitch, he received a close call to force a full count. The first baseman then lifted Tewksbury's next offering off the Plexiglas facing of a mezzanine luxury box. The hit extended the Orioles' run to 13 consecutive games with at least one homer.

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