Erickson stops Braves short With 7-hitter, Oriole needs less than 2 hours to ground out 3-2 win

O's shortest game since '83

Homers give Neagle Camden Yards tour

June 06, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

While starting pitcher Scott Erickson played speedball, the Orioles hit the powerball last night against the Atlanta Braves. Conducted at stopwatch pace, a game featuring five home runs but otherwise precision pitching ended as a 3-2 Orioles win before 48,039 at Camden Yards.

Eric Davis, Lenny Webster and Joe Carter punished Braves starter Denny Neagle with bases-empty home runs and Erickson surrendered the same to Braves second baseman Tony Graffanino and left fielder Ryan Klesko. In a hurried game of all-or-nothing, the Orioles claimed their fourth win in five days while remaining perfect against a team manager Ray Miller refers to as a "dynasty."

The American League leader in hits allowed, Erickson muffled the National League's most prolific offense on seven hits. A ninth-inning rally fell short when Erickson got his 19th ground-ball out.

The 1-hour and 53-minute game was the shortest in the majors this season and was the Orioles' shortest ever at Camden Yards. One has to go back to their last world championship to find a faster Orioles game, 1: 48 against Toronto in 1983.

Aside from Erickson, the Orioles responded with pure power against Neagle (7-3), who entered with a 1.88 ERA in his four previous starts. The left-hander left with a tough loss to a reviving club that has won nine of 13 to claw within two games of .500 (29-31).

"When you play [the Braves] it brings a lot out in you because you want to compete with them," Miller said. "I think this club is a lot better than everybody thinks it is. Before the year is over, I'm going to pull out a lot of things that were said and written in May and we'll talk some more."

Since coming to the Braves in August 1996, Neagle is 16-1 in Atlanta but a slightly more mortal 13-10 on the road.

"Unfortunately I was a little too hitter-friendly in the first couple innings," said Neagle, a Gambrills native making his homecoming.

Gracious hosts, the Orioles gave Neagle a tour of Camden Yards with their first three hits. Davis homered to center field in the first inning. Webster led off the third with his first home run since April 7 for a 2-1 lead. And designated hitter Carter turned a fastball just inside the left-field foul pole for a leadoff homer in the fourth.

Graffanino forced a 1-1 tie with his second home run in the third inning. Klesko provided some suspense with a one-out homer in the ninth.

The game was a hybrid of powerball and speedball. In an economic outing, Erickson and Neagle threw 216 combined pitches, 136 for strikes. Erickson retired 13 consecutive hitters at one point. Neagle faced only five hitters more than the minimum en route to his third complete game.

Miller, the old Pirates pitching coach, called it "refreshing to play a National League-paced game."

With ace Mike Mussina scheduled to start today for the first time since May 14, the Orioles were just glad to restore some pitching momentum. They had allowed 45 runs in their previous six games.

Commented Miller, who before yesterday's game added Double-A prospect Radhames Dykhoff from Bowie: "Everybody

wants to speed up baseball and everybody's trying. But the caliber of pitching is what makes quick ballgames. It's just the fact that you have a lot of guys who aren't of major-league caliber pitching in the big leagues and they're not able to get the ball over the plate."

Erickson (6-6) extended a dominant run that has seen him clear at least seven innings in his last six starts.

Since extending his stride in Minnesota May 11, Erickson has again resembled the pitcher noted for the game's heaviest sinker. In his last six starts, he is 3-3 with a 3.02 ERA over 47 2/3 innings. Subtract a 9-5 loss in Texas May 31, and he's pitched to a 1.99 ERA during the run.

"I'm aware that I need effective defense out there to be a good pitcher. Pitching and defense go hand in hand and when the guys make the play it makes it that much easier to pitch," said Erickson, an occasional critic of indifferent support.

Second baseman Roberto Alomar gave him brilliant backing in the fourth inning when he turned a one-hop shot by Klesko into a highlight play. With no one out, Alomar dove for the ball, flipped it with his glove to shortstop Jeff Reboulet for a force of Andres Galarraga.

Miller didn't shake his bullpen until the eighth inning. Admitting it was "a close call" on whether to stay with Erickson after Klesko's home run, Miller sided with his rotation.

"I don't care how far away your bullpen is. I don't care if it's down in Washington, D.C., or how long it takes them to get in. If you get two guys pitching like that it doesn't matter," he said.

Erickson downplayed the game as a dial-it-up event.

"We're in a situation where we need to play well no matter who we're playing," he said. "We can't wait to play a first-place team before we try to do good. We've got our backs against the wall. If we don't play everybody like they're a first-place team we're in trouble."

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