Bottoms-up Rays again toast O's, 6-3

Lower half of order does in Erickson as Orioles lose 1st series

April 09, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Versatility was supposed to provide the Orioles a different hero every night.

Last night they made one out of Kevin Stocker.

A bantamweight hitter within a previously underwhelming lineup, the Tampa Bay shortstop became the catalyst for the Devil Rays' 6-3 win over the Orioles before an announced crowd of 39,853 at Camden Yards.

Supposedly punchless against right-handed pitching, Stocker tormented Orioles powerball starter Scott Erickson. Allegedly a spot where rallies go to die, the Rays' No. 9 hitter reached base in three of four plate appearances and executed a deflating squeeze bunt in his fourth. The Orioles were sent away empty despite containing the Rays' Nos. 3-6 hitters to 1-for-17.

"We didn't do a good job against their 8 and 9 hitters," conceded manager Ray Miller. "They did a good job of waiting for pitches over the middle of the plate. When they got 'em, they hit 'em."

The Orioles were held without an extra-base hit by Bobby Witt (1-0) and three relievers. Meanwhile, right fielder Dave Martinez added three RBIs to Wednesday's four. Stocker reached base three times in each game.

"The goal is to win games. My goal wasn't to come out and get a bunch of hits and steal bases. It was to come out with a real high intensity level and just try to win instead of just competing like we did last year," Stocker said of the second-year club.

As expansioneers the Devil Rays won seven of 12 against the game's highest payroll, including a historic four-game sweep at Camden Yards. Last night they celebrated a series win Stocker described as "huge for us."

The Orioles might possess the more intimidating middle of the lineup, but the Devil Rays exhibited a terrifying lower third.

Stocker and No. 8 hitter Miguel Cairo scored four times last night, leaving the lowest three spots in the Devil Rays lineup with 11 of the team's 21 runs in the series. If Stocker's presence wasn't frustrating enough, Cairo supplied six hits and four runs during a series that saw the visitors mash 36 hits.

The Orioles wasted little time threatening Witt in the first before again failing to milk a potentially breakout inning. The same waste that helped doom the Orioles in Wednesday's 8-5 loss repeated itself after three of last night's first four hitters singled, scoring Brady Anderson for a 1-0 lead. Just as quickly, the big inning died when Harold Baines grounded to Witt for an inning-ending double play.

"One more hit and who knows?" lamented Miller, "but I can't complain about the hitting."

Starting pitching remains the Orioles' largest concern. The rotation amassed only 15 1/3 innings in the series with Sidney Ponson and Doug Linton scheduled to start two games of this weekend's series vs. Toronto.

Even in defeat Erickson reiterated his preference for keeping Lenny Webster as his personal catcher. Webster made his first start of the season and contributed two singles along with a larger comfort zone for his pitcher, who labored during a winless spring training.

"I don't see why there's a big debate," said Erickson. "I go out there and do the best I can no matter who's back there. I've always felt pretty confident with Webby back there and I don't know why you'd want to change anything."

"Regardless of what people think, there's a lot to it when two people work well together for a certain number of years," said Webster, a teammate of Erickson's in Minnesota. "A guy becomes comfortable with a guy being back there."

The only mistake, according to Erickson, was a too-high changeup to Martinez that became a two-run, ground-rule double to break a 2-2 tie in the fifth inning. Erickson called it a "gamble" pitch since the changeup is the least effective of his four-pitch arsenal.

"I tried to fool him. It didn't work. He hit the ball. They scored two. They won," summed Erickson.

Early on, it didn't appear to matter how many runners the Orioles stranded. Erickson emerged from his spring training funk to leave three of the first four hitters he faced holding kindling. At his bat-busting best, Erickson cruised through the Devil Rays order the first time, holding it hitless for 2 2/3 innings before Stocker walked and leadoff hitter Randy Winn looped a single. Erickson's initial lapse resulted in a run when Martinez continued his monster series with another hit.

Erickson regained the lead in the fourth when rookie third baseman Willis Otanez took advantage of a skewed infield by rolling a base hit through second base, which had been vacated by the pull-conscious Cairo.

Erickson then stumbled with another lead. After holding the Devil Rays 0-for-8 the first time through the order, he surrendered seven hits to the next 12 hitters he faced. With one out in the fourth inning the Devil Rays put together four consecutive hits with Stocker again stirring the rally. This was the same Stocker who stumbled to a .208 average last season, including a league-low .194 against right-handed pitching.

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