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 the fissures of a disintegrating team, the Orioles were crushed, 14-8, before a crowd of 22,119 and a national television audience. Baltimore's dirty little secret is out. At 3-11, including a 1-7 road trip that concludes tonight, the Orioles have run out of optimism. Facing Orioles ace Mike Mussina, the Devil Rays used the game to set nine different club or individual offensive records.

So far the Orioles have won when they pitch a shutout or score at least nine runs. Nothing else has worked.

The grotesque loss -- the Orioles' fifth straight -- left them with eight losses 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 loss. It was a relentless beating administered by a second-year franchise with no illusions 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. By game's end, hard hats were appropriate for Orioles fielders and bleacherites alike.

For the Orioles to maintain they aren't trapped within a total meltdown is the height of denial. Last night's effort featured outfielders unmoved to chase a shallow fly ball, a veteran base runner who committed a juvenile tactical mistake and a starting pitcher frustrated by slack support and ultimately his own inability to make pitches. Manager Ray 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.

Mussina 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 last night shaken, angry and charged with a career-high 10 earned runs.

Last night represented his career nightmare. Sabotaged by fielder's indifference in the first inning, he was given 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 at-bat, Mussina and catcher Lenny Webster met three times only to surrender a two-run double to Devil Rays center fielder Randy Winn.

For the second consecutive night Miller offered strong words to his starting pitcher during a mound visit. For the second consecutive night a starting pitcher left the game with his briefest outing in two seasons. A starting rotation that began this nightmarish nine-game road trip in trouble is now in tatters.

The shoddy defense was 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.

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

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.

With Kevin Stocker at first base, Winn grounded to DeShields' right. DeShields took two steps and dove, missing the ball, which rolled into right-center field for an RBI double. Dave Martinez followed with another double, this one into the left-field corner, to jack the lead to 4-1.

While the Orioles point to their number of errors to validate their defense, the rest of the league sees a sluggish team further exposed on artificial turf. It is not coincidental that the Orioles are 0-5 on the surface after going 13-16 on it last season.

"No one is going to call them a fast team but they are really exposed on carpet," assessed an American League scout, confounded by what he watched.

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