Erickson finds form, not victory

Struggling O's starter allows only 4 hits, but 1 is 3-run A's homer

3-0 loss 3rd shutout of week

Losing 8-pitch battle to Stairs leaves O's 4-13

April 25, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Maybe the Orioles solved the puzzle yesterday that had been Scott Erickson, the former workhorse who couldn't get out of the gate this season. Maybe there was something for them to take from this game besides more lumps.

It's already gotten to the point where they must scrap for positives.

Pitching on three days' rest, Erickson turned in his most effective outing this season, carrying a shutout into the sixth inning and making it through the seventh. But that would be his only reward, as the Orioles were blanked for the third time in a week, losing to the Oakland Athletics, 3-0, before 41,540 at Camden Yards.

Before last Sunday, they had been shut out only three times in the previous 240 games.

Erickson retired 12 of the first 13 batters before Matt Stairs opened the fifth with a double off the scoreboard in right. Stairs did greater damage the next inning, hitting a three-run homer with two outs and the count full to assure Erickson of his first 0-4 start.

Stairs, who homered off Juan Guzman the previous night, was fed a steady diet of fastballs during an eight-pitch battle with Erickson. He fouled off the last two, then pulled a hanging slider onto the flag court in right, leading to the Orioles' seventh loss in eight games and dropping their record to 4-13.

"Unfortunately, it only took one bad pitch to cost us the game," said Erickson, who allowed four hits. "In a close game like this, you almost have to be perfect. It boiled down to one pitch and that was the difference.

"I probably should have stayed hard with him, but he fought off a few pitches and he got a pitch to hit and he hit it. It was the same pitch he hit the double off, so I thought maybe he wasn't expecting it. I took a chance and he hit it."

Catcher Charles Johnson said he didn't believe Stairs was sitting on the slider, but recognized it right away and got hold of it. Stairs said he was thinking curveball, a pitch Erickson had thrown to get ahead of him in the second inning.

Manager Ray Miller didn't second-guess the decision to throw a slider, which Johnson had called. "If he gets it where he's supposed to, it's probably a pretty good pitch. He just left it over the inside half. If it breaks down and in, [Stairs] probably swings and misses," Miller said.

Erickson's velocity had dropped in his previous start in Tampa, which lasted just 1 2/3 innings, but his fastball regularly was clocked at 93 mph yesterday. He threw 100 pitches, 55 for strikes.

Oakland put a runner on third base in the second and fifth innings without scoring, but broke through in the sixth after a leadoff walk to Tony Phillips and a two-out pitch from Erickson that hit John Jaha.

Erickson breezed through the seventh before turning over the game to Jesse Orosco.

"He had good, late movement and he kept the ball down," said Miller, whose club hasn't won consecutive games since Sept. 13-14.

Erickson watched videotapes from last season, making the necessary adjustments with his stride and becoming more explosive toward the plate. As a result, he became only the second starter this year to take a shutout past the fourth inning. Mike Mussina and relievers Arthur Rhodes and Mike Timlin combined to blank Toronto on April 10.

Yesterday also marked only the fourth time in 17 games that the Orioles didn't allow at least five runs, and only the fifth time a starter lasted into the seventh inning.

Erickson hadn't been able to satisfy a hearty appetite for innings, failing to reach the fifth in his last two starts. He allowed 17 earned runs and 26 hits in his first three appearances covering 12 1/3 innings, and blamed a lack of work this spring for much of his trouble, though he backed off that excuse a little last week.

"It's tough to base a whole lot on one game," he said, "but I think there was definitely a difference in what I was doing today. I'll try to stay consistent with today's mechanics and hopefully it will be the start of something positive."

He'll get four days' rest before his next start, then five preceding the next appearance because of the May 3 exhibition game against Cuba.

Reminded how Erickson desires shorter rest, Miller shot back: "I don't care what he desires. It's just, when you're off every Monday, I don't see how you can take five and divide it into seven and come up with everybody pitching every fourth day. It just doesn't work."

Neither did anything the Orioles tried against Oakland starter Mike Oquist and three relievers. They managed only four hits, including bunt singles by Delino DeShields and B. J. Surhoff, and stranded nine runners.

Oquist, who spent three seasons here, was removed in the sixth after issuing two-out walks to Harold Baines and Jeff Conine. Willis Otanez worked the count full against T. J. Mathews before popping to first.

The Orioles twice brought up the potential tying run in the eighth after Surhoff's bunt single and a one-out walk to Albert Belle -- his team-leading 18th of the season.

Left-hander Buddy Groom entered, and Miller pinch-hit Rich Amaral for Baines, sacrificing power for percentages. Groom retired Amaral on one pitch, fielding a one-hopper to the mound and getting the force at second.

With Conine on deck, A's manager Art Howe went to his bullpen again, calling on right-hander Billy Taylor. Again, it took only one pitch to record the out, this time on a grounder to short that brought groans from the crowd and a stampede to the exits.

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