Orioles left with rundown feeling

Botched play in 7th caps 9-5 loss to Jays, dismal 1st homestand

April 12, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles' 6-game-old season hit its low point yesterday and resurrected questions about the composition of an already well-worn pitching staff.

What started as a possible break-even homestand and a personal landmark for starting pitcher Doug Linton degenerated into a 9-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays pocked by a calamitous five-run seventh inning.

A botched rundown play between third base and home plate helped extend an inning that turned a 4-2 lead into an insurmountable 7-4 deficit before an announced paid crowd of 40,273, about half of whom may have made it to Camden Yards. Blue Jays catcher Darrin Fletcher capped the collapse with a three-run homer off Jesse Orosco (0-1), who yielded five runs (four earned) on 13 pitches.

Even worse, Orioles manager Ray Miller called upon his bullpen four times with the team traveling to New York tonight for the start of a nine-game road swing.

"You have to pitch in this league," Miller said. "It's going to be an offensive league; it's going to be an offensive year."

It's starting to look like a long one as the Orioles struggle to locate their pitching form. Miller attempted to show restraint when asked whether the time is approaching when a 12th pitcher represents a necessity rather than a luxury. "It will be [necessary] unless our starting pitcher improves," he said. "You can't be using four guys a day. When you've only got six guys out there it's tough to use four every day if you want them to last."

Which makes this week's rotation problems even more painful at home.

"You can't run out the clock. You need to get 27 outs," said pitching coach Bruce Kison. "That makes it a bigger issue when you're at home. You still need [to pitch] that ninth inning."

Yesterday the honor fell to Heathcliff Slocumb. Following Orosco, Mike Fetters allowed two more runs in the eighth by walking or hitting four of six batters he faced.

The Orioles now leave for a nine-game trip with their bullpen having pitched 24 of 54 innings -- an average of four innings per game. Projected for long relief, Ricky Bones already has made four of the bullpen's 20 appearances.

Miller lobbied to keep a 12th pitcher coming out of Florida. However, the desire of the front office to keep third baseman Willis Otanez, who is out of minor-league options, won out. Otanez proved a needed commodity while replacing Cal Ripken last Wednesday and Thursday but Miller grows increasingly concerned about the red-line effect caused by his slow-developing rotation. Typically, five innings from a makeshift fifth starter such as Linton would be well-received. Circumstances caused Miller to softly complain about the load created by his departure after 88 pitches.

"When you're scoring four or five runs a game, that should be enough," said Miller. "Again, everything is dictated by your starting pitching. We got to the seventh inning today and the bullpen couldn't make it."

To create roster room for Linton, the Orioles optioned reliever Doug Johns to Rochester. With Linton committed to the rotation -- he is scheduled to start Saturday's game in Toronto -- they have sacrificed a dependable long reliever, only heightening the need for longer starts.

Facing 1996 Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen, the Orioles threatened an early blowout when their first five hitters reached. Brady Anderson's infield single and Mike Bordick's bunt hit preceded an RBI single from Will Clark. After a four-pitch walk to Albert Belle, designated hitter Harold Baines crushed Hentgen's second pitch for a three-run homer and a 4-0 lead. But for the second straight game the Orioles did little after the first inning.

Linton, who roomed with Hentgen for three years while in the Blue Jays' system, negotiated five innings in his first major-league appearance since Sept. 11, 1996.

The Blue Jays pulled within 4-1 on Alex Gonzalez's two-out single in the second inning and 4-2 when Carlos Delgado's two-out single in the fifth made Linton pay for a pair of earlier walks.

Bones pitched a scoreless sixth. Miller then imported Orosco, who was greeted by consecutive singles from Jose Cruz and Shawn Green.

The telling play began with none out and the runners at first and third when Blue Jays DH Dave Hollins grounded sharply at third baseman Cal Ripken. With a two-run lead, Ripken had decided before the pitch that he would start a double play if he fielded the ball to his glove side or otherwise go to the plate to maintain the lead and keep the double play in order.

Ripken threw home to catcher Charles Johnson when Hollins, an above-average runner, scalded a grounder directly at him.

"You've got to take the run at the plate," said Miller. "You can't go for two unless you're positive."

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