Belle chimes in as streak hits five, 9-4

3-run upper-deck shot, 4 RBIs keep Orioles motoring in Detroit

Inefficient Mussina is 5-1

Johnson breaks out, too

4 walks mar ace's 6-plus

May 08, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

DETROIT -- Tiger Stadium is coming down after this season. Albert Belle tried to accelerate the process last night.

With the night's first four RBIs, Belle provided the Orioles a long-awaited offensive jolt last night while starting pitcher Mike Mussina slogged his way to an effective but often inefficient 9-4 win over the Detroit Tigers before an announced crowd of 15,519.

The effort lifted the Orioles to their fifth consecutive win and sixth in their last seven games. Though they never trailed, they had to survive a nervous bullpen performance behind Mussina, who left the game after walking the first batter in the seventh inning.

Belle, who carries almost as many RBIs (21) as hits (23), pushed the Orioles to a 4-0 lead with a sacrifice fly and his sixth home run, a searing shot into the left-field upper deck. Jeff Reboulet scored four times and catcher Charles Johnson mixed his second home run among three hits as the Orioles halted a six-game road losing streak. Having started in a 6-17 slide, they will hardly quibble over style points.

The Orioles were forced to sit through six walks in the four innings after building a 9-0 lead against Tigers left-hander Justin Thompson and reliever Nelson Cruz. Mussina allowed six of the last nine hitters he faced to reach base, three on walks.

"I've pitched better games," Mussina said. "I haven't thrown the ball consistently well yet. I've given up too many hits; I've walked too many people. I'm fortunate enough to get big outs when I need them."

Mussina (5-1) never cruised but benefited from uncommon support to win his third consecutive start and lift his career record against the Tigers to 15-2.

"The times I've been here he's been real sharp," said Orioles manager Ray Miller. "I don't think he was all that sharp tonight."

"I'm pretty fortunate to be where I am," Mussina said, referring to an ERA that remains at 4.71 and 74 base runners allowed in 42 innings.

Still, Mussina extended his dominance to 7-1 in 10 career starts at Tiger Stadium, which is scheduled for demolition.

Given a breakout by Belle, the Orioles tried to advance the schedule by attacking Thompson for a lead only four hitters into the game. Orioles second baseman Delino DeShields would bat four times before Tigers' No. 8 hitter Gabe Kapler received his second plate appearance.

Belle's traditional April discomfort is well known, but this season it seemed especially pronounced given his new surroundings and the Orioles' horrendous start. Belle's diminished bat speed had become a cause of concern, though Miller attributed it to the right fielder becoming a bit too fixated on swing mechanics. "Let it go" Miller urged the slugger before last night's game.

Well aware of the heckling Belle absorbs at every stop, Miller suggested that it may have played a role in his halting start.

"He puts up with a lot of abuse, especially around the dugout. I blame baseball. People sitting around the dugouts get up and leave late in the game, and you get a lot of drunks and a lot of seedy people saying all types of things."

"He had a typical April," said hitting coach Terry Crowley. "And that typically means there's a lot of good stuff on the way."

Prompted by Belle, the Orioles pounded Thompson unmercifully. The left-hander entered on a career-high four-game win streak and had compiled a 1.06 ERA in his last 26 innings pitched.

The more significant trend proved to be Thompson's career futility against the Orioles. While left-handers typically stifle their left-handed-dependent lineup, the Orioles ripped into Thompson (4-3) for seven hits and seven earned runs in 3 2/3 innings.

Belle accounted for the 4-0 lead with a first-inning sacrifice fly before jumping on a 3-1 fastball for his sixth home run two innings later. Belle's four RBIs almost equaled his total (five) from his previous 51 at-bats.

While Belle provides a presence to the middle of the order, his success has lagged those surrounding him. He has walked in 15 of his last 20 games and is on pace to easily receive his first 100-walk season. Before last night he had gone hitless in 13 of his last 19 games and batted .181 since April 11. After doubling 48 times last season, Belle still has only one this year.

"I don't know how many times he's going to walk, but he might lead the league in runs scored," Miller said.

B. J. Surhoff has batted .373 since being installed as the No. 3 hitter ahead of Belle. Harold Baines, given last night off against a left-hander, has benefited from Belle constantly being on base. Baines has three home runs and 10 RBIs in his last six games.

Belle, meanwhile, has been more scrutinized for what he hasn't done, such as running out ground balls, hitting with runners in scoring position or showing enthusiasm for defense.

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