NEW YORK -- The Big Apple took another bite out of the Orioles last night, and just when it appeared no one was coming back for seconds.
The Orioles carried a one-run lead into the seventh inning, then lost their grip. The game eventually went with it. Carlos Baerga blooped a two-out single into right-center off Armando Benitez in the ninth inning to score Edgardo Alfonzo and give the New York Mets a 3-2 victory before 35,156 at Shea Stadium.
Benitez replaced Jesse Orosco to begin the ninth and walked Alfonzo. Pinch hitter Luis Lopez and Mike Piazza struck out, but John Olerud walked and Baerga singled over retreating second baseman Roberto Alomar, sending the crowd into delirium and the Orioles to Montreal with their heads hanging.
The loss was the fourth in five games for the Orioles (37-42), including three straight to the Mets, the last two here. They'll get another dose of interleague play this weekend, nine games short of the All-Star break and showing no signs of making a serious charge at the wild-card.
While the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were winning last night, the Orioles were sliding five games under .500 for the first time since May 31. They're 0-5 in New York, including a three-game sweep by the Yankees last month. The Orioles are 9 1/2 behind Boston in the wild-card race.
Alomar hit his eighth homer and Joe Carter added a run-scoring double off Hideo Nomo, providing a 2-0 lead that wouldn't hold. The Mets tied it in the seventh, then avoided extra innings when Baerga knocked the wind out of the Orioles.
"We're struggling," said starter Scott Erickson. "We didn't do the job. What can I say? Everybody's trying."
Manager Ray Miller was short on bullpen options again. Arthur Rhodes needed another night off. Norm Charlton and Terry Mathews, both of whom pitched on Wednesday, continue to struggle. Miller went with Benitez even though he admitted the right-hander "was probably gassed."
"He's been in five of the last eight games and he threw 44 pitches two nights ago. He gave us everything he had," Miller said.
Erickson gave the Orioles another quality start, but not the victory. Having thrown 148 pitches in his previous outing, he allowed two runs in 6 2/3 innings last night. He never retired the side in order and was undone in the seventh by a leadoff triple by pinch hitter Wayne Kirby and a sacrifice fly by Piazza.
Kirby, 10-for-19 lifetime against Erickson, sent a deep drive to right, the ball beating Carter to the wall.
The Orioles haven't been able to depend on much this season, but Erickson has been close to a sure thing. In his five starts in June he is 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA.
Before the Mets drew even, the only run off him had come in the fifth on a walk to Alfonzo and a one-out triple to center field by Matt Franco. Faced with the most dangerous part of the lineup, he got Piazza on a grounder to shortstop Mike Bordick, with Franco holding despite having a good chance to score the tying run, and Olerud on a fly ball to center.
"Those two runs, I can't afford to make mistakes like that," Erickson said. "I've got to make better pitches. We weren't scoring, so I've got to turn it up a notch."
Miller said Erickson wasn't going past seven innings no matter what, not after being extended so far in his last start because of a depleted bullpen.
"I felt good," said Erickson, who was pulled after 118 pitches. "It was pretty hot out there but the last game had no affect on me whatsoever.
The closest either team came to breaking through early was the third, when Olerud sent left fielder B. J. Surhoff to the fence to haul in a two-out drive with Alfonzo on second. Surhoff reached above his head to make the running catch and slammed into the padding.
One pitch later, the Orioles had the lead. Alomar homered off Nomo leading off the fourth, a line drive that cleared the fence in right and broke an 0-for-10 skid.
It became 2-0 in the fifth on two mistakes by Nomo and a ground-rule double by Carter. Nomo walked Erickson for the second time, moved him up with a two-out wild pitch and paid the price when Carter's drive to center field cleared the fence on one hop.
The Orioles were in the running to acquire Nomo from Los Angeles before he was dealt to the Mets. He's 0-3 with his new team, allowing 10 earned runs in 23 innings, and still looking for his first victory since April 28.
"He threw all right, not nearly as hard as he used to," Miller said.
Just as the Orioles did little with 14 hits in Wednesday's loss, they were slow to capitalize on opportunities last night.
It took two pitches for Nomo to find trouble. Brady Anderson sliced a double to left, the ball eluding Franco's backhanded stab and rolling behind him. Anderson hustled to third when Carter flew to right, but the ball never left the infield again. Rafael Palmeiro bounced to the mound, with Nomo making a leaping grab, and Alomar struck out.
The Orioles kept knocking. Surhoff led off the second inning by pulling a single into right field. Cal Ripken flew to right. Lenny Webster, batting .409 in his previous seven games, popped to first. And Bordick went down swinging.
The screws were tightened in the third. Erickson drew a leadoff walk, bringing jeers from the crowd. It didn't bring a run. Fly balls by Anderson and Palmeiro were sandwiched around a strikeout of Carter.
The lead would come, then disappear. All that remained for the Orioles were their troubles.
Opponent: Montreal Expos
Site: Olympic Stadium, Montreal
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Sidney Ponson (1-5, 5.66) vs. Expos' Dustin Hermanson (5-6, 2.97)
Pub Date: 6/26/98