Dismal loss dims Orioles' ray of hope

August 21, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

The score was on the board before the first pitch last night at Camden Yards: Royals 8, Red Sox 2.

It was a score that framed the Orioles' evening in clear, unequivocal terms.

They had to win. They absolutely, positively had to beat the Devil Rays.

OK, maybe that's a little strong for a routine weeknight game with five-plus weeks left in the season.

But you know what? It's really not too strong.

No way could the Orioles afford to lose at home to a last-place expansion team on a night when precious ground in the wild-card race was there for the taking.

No way could they afford to lose to a starting pitcher who'd recorded three wins in 25 starts when they had a chance to close to within six games of the Sox.

Final score: Devil Rays 4, Orioles 2.

Not good. And not good enough for a team trying to stage a miracle comeback from nowhere.

The Orioles had won three games in a row, seven of eight, 13 of 16 and 30 of 38 coming into last night, but this was weak stuff.

No, that's not remotely fair. You can't expect a win every night.

"Every team has nights like this when they don't score many runs," said Orioles starter Juan Guzman, who took the loss.

He is right. Stuff happens. But the fact that a routine defeat was so hurtful illuminates the Orioles' desperate circumstances. Their margin or error is absurdly thin. Unfairly thin. Win 30 of 38, lose one and bleed.

Of course, they have only themselves to blame for the deep hole they dug.

Anyway, let's face it, as well as they have played just to get within sight of the Sox, they can't expect to make up eight losses from here on in without taking advantage of easy opportunities.

L This was one. And it was an opportunity blown. Yes, another.

For the second time in five games and the third time in 11 days, the Orioles lost knowing they had a chance to gain ground on the Sox.

Four nights earlier, they blew a lead in the late innings in Cleveland and blew a chance to close to within six games.

Seven days before that, they blew a lead in Minnesota with Mike Mussina pitching.

Now this.

Not that the loss eliminated the Orioles or completely spoiled their wild-card chances. There's time left. Who knows what will happen?

But the Sox are still eight up in the loss column. That's a sizable hole, so sizable that the rest of baseball still doesn't view the Orioles as a serious playoff contender.

Heard on ESPN's "SportsCenter" yesterday: "The Red Sox are in complete control [of the wild-card race] barring a major collapse."

If the Orioles wanted to keep any pressure on the Sox, they had to win last night.

Instead, the Sox slept well for another night.

You just don't let Tony Saunders beat you in those circumstances, particularly not at home.

Saunders, the Devil Rays' starter last night, is a Baltimore native who brought a 3-11 record into the game. He was there for the taking right away, in the bottom of the first. He walked Roberto Alomar, then walked Eric Davis one batter later. Up came Rafael Palmeiro with a chance to cause real trouble.

But Palmeiro, stuck in a 2-for-20 funk, bounced into a double play.

Saunders then walked Cal Ripken to start the bottom of the second, seemingly intent on giving the Orioles a break. B. J. Surhoff singled one batter later to put runners on first and third with one out. This time, Lenny Webster bounced into a double play.

Having escaped two jams in two innings, Saunders settled down and pitched well. Bubba Trammell gave the Devil Rays a 1-0 lead with a home run in the fourth. Saunders protected the slim lead into the seventh and his teammates added another run for a 2-0 lead.

After Palmeiro struck out to start the bottom of the seventh, Ripken finally solved Saunders, hitting a 2-0 pitch into the Orioles' bullpen for a home run.

One batter later, Surhoff hit a high fly that drifted over the tall wall in right for another homer.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the Orioles had rallied to tie.

The crowd of 44,566 celebrated by doing the wave between innings, and the celebration continued as the Devil Rays came to the plate in the eighth.

While the crowd did the wave, the Orioles fell behind again. And for good.

The Devil Rays' Quinton McCracken singled to lead off the inning against Arthur Rhodes, stole second, went to third on a groundout and scored on a sacrifice fly.

Devil Rays third baseman Bobby Smith, a right-handed hitter, delivered the sacrifice against Rhodes, a lefty. Orioles manager Ray Miller chose not to use several available right-handed pitchers against Smith.

"The key to the game was their being able to get the lead right back," Surhoff said. "We did it in Cleveland last week. They did it tonight."

The Devil Rays also added another run in the ninth, and the Orioles never really threatened to rally. The ballpark emptied quickly. A chance had been wasted. A big chance. The fans knew it. The players knew it. Everyone knew it.

And in particular, the Red Sox knew it.

Pub Date: 8/21/98

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