Erickson, O's creep closer, 3-2 He whiffs 10 Twins in 7 innings to trim Red Sox lead to 6 1/2

Baines: 2 RBIs in 3-run 5th

Benitez bounces back with a perfect ninth

August 18, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The Orioles knew before they started playing last night that whatever ground they made up in the wild-card race would come from taking a small step forward. An early postponement in Boston had measured their stride.

They weren't about to quibble. Big gains, tiny gains -- as long as they kept moving in the right direction.

After four innings spent running in place, the Orioles took off in the fifth, cramming in all their scoring and offering enough support for Scott Erickson in a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins before 46,606 at Camden Yards.

The Orioles (66-58) moved within 6 1/2 games of the Red Sox and into a tie with Texas. They're 28-8 since the All-Star break and looking to complete a sweep of this abbreviated series. They've won 10 of 12 series since the second half began, including six sweeps.

Is Boston, which must play a day-night doubleheader against the Rangers today, beginning to check over its shoulder?

"You have to," said catcher Lenny Webster. "They have to be looking behind and saying, 'Gosh, these guys keep winning. We have to keep winning to keep pace.' If we could get within three by the end of the month, that's pretty good considering where we've come from."

A two-run single by Harold Baines put the Orioles ahead in the fifth, and they hung on behind Erickson (13-9), who matched his career high with 10 strikeouts in seven innings.

Erickson got Brent Gates swinging at a slider in the dirt to end the seventh and strand two runners. With five of the last 10 batters having reached, he turned the game over to the bullpen. There would be no regrets.

Jimmy Key, making his fourth relief appearance, tossed a perfect eighth. He hasn't allowed a hit in 3 2/3 innings since leaving the rotation. And Armando Benitez collected his 18th save with a peaceful ninth.

"I didn't feel good about this game from the get-go," said manager Ray Miller, whose club just returned from a 10-game road trip. "We didn't get in until about 3 a.m. and no one got to bed until 4. I was tired."

Two batters into the game, Erickson was behind. Otis Nixon and Gates poked doubles down the left-field line for a 1-0 lead, setting up an apparent repeat of Erickson's last start against the Twins on Aug. 7, when he allowed five runs in the first inning and didn't get the decision in the Orioles' 16-9 win. This time, he kept the damage to a minimum, retiring Matt Lawton on a grounder and striking out Ron Coomer and Todd Walker.

The Twins threatened again in the second on a two-out walk and single, but Nixon bounced to short. From there, Erickson became untouchable. He didn't allow another runner until Gates led off the sixth with a single to right, setting down 10 straight.

He struck out five along the way, biding his time until the Orioles solved LaTroy Hawkins.

"He pitched well enough for us to stay in the game," said Webster. "We expect him to go out and give us a quality start."

He couldn't do it during a three-game stretch beginning July 26, when he lasted a combined 12 innings and failed to win. But Erickson rebounded in his last start with a five-hit shutout in Tampa Bay, and offered another strong performance last night.

"I've felt the same for the last three months," he said. "Even though I had that little slump there, I felt great. My velocity's been the same the whole time through. I just got my mechanics sound again and I think that made a difference."

The Orioles were getting their second look at Hawkins in 10 days. Matched up against Erickson in Minnesota, he permitted six runs in 3 2/3 innings.

Hawkins (7-12) brought more to the table last night. He walked Baines with two outs in the first, then retired six in a row before Roberto Alomar slapped a single into left field. Faced with the only semblance of a jam up to that point, he struck out Brady Anderson on a high fastball to end the inning.

"Tonight was as good as we've seen him," Webster said of Hawkins, who gave up nine hits in 6 2/3 innings.

The Orioles gave him trouble in the fifth, loading the bases on singles by Mike Bordick and Alomar and a walk to Anderson. After a visit from pitching coach Dick Such, Hawkins threw a fastball on the inner half of the plate that Baines lined into right-center field. Rafael Palmeiro then lifted a fly ball to left, scoring Anderson for a 3-1 lead.

Baines is 9-for-17 with seven RBIs lifetime against Hawkins. "I can't get Harold Baines out," he said. "It was like he threw that ball over the second baseman's head."

Benitez was given a mixed reception upon being introduced in the ninth, the price paid for blowing a save in Cleveland Sunday. The recipient of a stern lecture from Miller that afternoon, he didn't allow the ball out of the infield last night while retiring the side. He threw strikes, contrasting his three-walk ninth-inning debacle vs. the Indians, and secured the victory.

"God gave me all this talent," Benitez said. "Now I have to work hard and do my job."

He got it done last night. An important step for the reliever, on a night made for smaller gains.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Minnesota Twins

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Twins' Brad Radke (10-10, 3.73) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (6-6, 5.69)

Tickets: 7,200 remain

Of whiffs and wins

Last night Scott Erickson set a season high for strikeouts, but punching out hitters hasn't necessarily corresponded to wins for the Orioles right- hander, who has two losses and three no-decisions in '98 games with seven or more strikeouts:

Date Opp ..... SO ... IP ... Result

4/22 Ana ..... 7 .... 6 .... ND (7-6 L)

5/2 Min ...... 7 .... 6 .... ND (8-7 L)

5/21 NYY ..... 9 .... 7 2/3 L 3-1

5/26 Sea ..... 8 .... 8 .... W 8-3

5/31 Tex ..... 8 .... 7 .... L 9-5

6/10 Phi ..... 9 .... 7 1/3 ND (5-2 W)

6/20 Tor ..... 8 .... 9 .... W 11-3

7/11 Bos ..... 8 .... 8 2/3 W 2-1

7/21 Oak ..... 7 .... 9 .... W 7-1

8/17 Min ..... 10 ... 7 .... W 3-2

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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