O's: Devil of a time again, 14-8

Mussina gets pounded by Tampa Bay for career-worst 10 runs

Losing streak reaches 5

Sloppy defense helps drop record to 3-11

April 22, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sports Illustrated is taking the Orioles' plight national this week. ESPN will perform its slam dance this weekend. And last night at Tropicana Field, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays took another swipe at embarrassing a franchise in free fall.

In a loss that deepened fissures within a disintegrating April, the Orioles were crushed, 14-8, before a crowd of 22,119 and a national television audience. Baltimore's dirty little secret is now out. At 3-11, including a 1-7 road trip that concludes tonight, the Orioles are running out of optimism.

Facing Orioles ace Mike Mussina, the Devil Rays used the game to establish nine different club or individual offensive records.

The Orioles continue to set new standards of futility as they wallow in the second-worst start in club history.

Mussina's career-worst outing raised the rotation's ERA to 8.02. The entire staff has compiled an 8.03 ERA on the road trip, giving up runs in clusters.

"It's still early," said manager Ray Miller, "but it ain't pretty right now. As the manager, I've got to figure out how to get out of it -- which I will do."

The grotesque experience left the Orioles with five straight losses and eight in their last nine games and assured them of their fifth series loss this season. The fourth-place Devil Rays now stand five games ahead of the Orioles in the American League East.

This wasn't simply another numbing loss. It was a relentless beating administered by a second-year franchise with no pretence of contending in the AL East. The Devil Rays pounded three home runs, including the seventh and eighth of the season by designated hitter Jose Canseco.

"I have to think everything is open for evaluation," said Mussina. "Just because we're playing poorly you don't pick out one or two things. I think you look at everything right now. It's only fair to look at everything. I can't see how this gets any worse. I hope this is the bottom. It just can't get worse than this."

For the Orioles to maintain they aren't trapped within a total meltdown is the height of denial.

Last night's effort featured outfielders unable to run down shallow fly balls, a veteran base runner who committed a juvenile mistake and a starting pitcher beaten by slack support and ultimately his own inability to make pitches. Miller's answer was to summon exiled starter Doug Linton, who had thrown 115 pitches only four days before.

To a man, the Orioles say there is no lack of effort. The alternative is almost unthinkable: that their $83 million clubhouse is really this overmatched.

"The pitchers are proven. They're the reason we're not getting the job done now," Miller said. "You can talk and search and get mad and scream, and the next day put your arm around everybody's back, but you can't pitch. They've got to go out and get the job done. Right now, they're not getting the job done."

The Orioles haven't led in the last 38 innings. Mussina (2-1) entered the game as the Orioles' link to competence. He owned both of the rotation's wins, had crafted a 2.45 ERA in three starts and started a 1-0 shutout of the Toronto Blue Jays. He left shaken and charged with a career-high 10 earned runs.

"I don't know if there's any pressure now. What can get worse?" said Mussina.

"We're not looking for anything. It's not like it's September. We're just looking for anything. Get a starter through five with a lead. Then we'll work on getting through six with a lead. It's really that bad."

Last night represented Mussina's career nightmare. Sabotaged by indifferent fielding in the first inning, Mussina was offered new life by Willis Otanez's two-run homer in the fourth only to be overwhelmed during the Devil Rays' seven-run, six-hit fourth. During one fourth-inning at-bat Mussina and catcher Lenny Webster met three times only to surrender a two-run double to Rays center fielder Randy Winn.

The shoddy defense is nothing new to Mussina. He absorbed six unearned runs in his first two starts, including five resulting from Cal Ripken's double-error against the New York Yankees. Everything was earned last night but not deserved as Mussina's ERA soared to 6.14.

"You feel if we'd made a couple plays behind Mike he would have straightened out," Miller said.

Mussina opened the game with consecutive strikeouts and appeared to be out of the inning when Canseco lofted a innocuous fly ball to shallow right. Second baseman Delino DeShields retreated on a play that clearly belonged to right fielder Albert Belle. However, Belle broke poorly, advanced for three disinterested steps and stopped, apparently satisfied with holding Canseco to a single.

"Albert broke back and the ball fell in," explained Miller.

The Devil Rays turned the lapse into two runs when Fred McGriff doubled and catcher John Flaherty scored both runners with a lined single.

Back-to-back doubles by B.J. Surhoff and Jeff Conine in the second inning pulled the Orioles within 2-1. But again Mussina buckled with two outs.

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