May flowers O's in hits, but not wins

Likes of Surhoff, Baines put up numbers, but O's 13-15 for month

Ponson rises, Timlin falls

Horrid 6.49 April ERA improves to 5.02

June 02, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- The Orioles exited May on Monday night much as they had left April, sitting in last place within the runaway American League East awaiting a mesh of consistent pitching and opportunistic hitting.

While the past month offered more reason for hope than the previous month, it still imparted a heavier dosage of frustration than satisfaction. Cal Ripken's sore back got well; Scott Erickson's won-lost record didn't. Harold Baines became the league's most productive player based on plate appearances; Albert Belle became the invisible cleanup hitter.

The Orioles finished April 6-16 before going 13-15 in May. There were milestones such as a five-game win streak during the month's first week, the season's first back-to-back road wins May 26-27 and B. J. Surhoff's 15-game hitting streak.

Mike Timlin entered the month as the unchallenged closer but left in a time-share with Arthur Rhodes.

Ripken emerged from the disabled list on May 13 and hit safely in 13 of 16 games, including his 2,900th career hit on the month's final day.

Sidney Ponson, 22, became the Orioles' second-most effective starting pitcher. Erickson, meanwhile, continues to wait for his second win while Juan Guzman went into last night still seeking to put together consecutive quality starts.

The horrid pitching that doomed their start has improved from a 6.49 ERA in April to 5.02 in May, lowering the overall figure to 5.67, still second-worst in the league. Manager Ray Miller remains uneasy about a staff that has chafed under inconsistent roles and spotty starting pitching. Miller yesterday referred to two "little runs" of starting pitching last month but was sobered by the final three games of the month in which Jason Johnson, Erickson and Ponson combined for 9 2/3 innings.

Key statistic: the Orioles have scored six or more runs in 23 games but are only 13-10 in such situations.

The Orioles entered June relatively healthy. Scott Kamieniecki's future with the team is increasingly clouded by his halting rehab assignment at Triple-A Rochester. In three outings he has yet to produce a quality start and had to leave the second with back stiffness.

An ankle tendon injury to backup catcher Lenny Webster forced Charles Johnson to appear in 25 consecutive games, the longest stretch by any major-league catcher this season. Limited to one home run and one RBI in April, Johnson thrived during his forced march, mashing nine home runs and 20 RBIs. Johnson's embarrassing .179 April average had risen to .271 by the end of May.

In one stretch, Johnson homered in three consecutive plate appearances, leaving him only one shy of the Orioles record.

Baines emerged as a league marvel. At 40, he entered June with the team lead in home runs and RBIs, and hammered home runs in four of his first five games after being held out of the lineup four straight games by a strained quadriceps. On May 4 Baines entered the game against the Chicago White Sox and emerged with a grand slam, a triple and five RBIs -- in two at-bats. As with everything else he does, the Orioles designated hitter is quietly stalking his teammate, Ripken, for the career RBI lead among active players. Baines left the month with 1,517 RBIs. Ripken owns 1,527.

The relative lack of production from Belle, the game's highest-paid player for one season, continued to mystify club executives. Belle finished the month with no home runs and one RBI in his last 13 games. His double Saturday night in Oakland represented his first two-base hit since April 10, the season's fifth game. Belle, who hit 48 doubles with the Chicago White Sox in 1998, never finished May with fewer than eight doubles in eight previous seasons.

Club officials expected Belle to be approached carefully by opposing pitchers but did not anticipate him leading the league in walks. Belle walked in 30 of the Orioles' first 50 games; however, by the end of May he had expanded his hitting zone enough that he did not walk in the first 27 plate appearances of the current road trip.

Even given Belle's labored start, the Orioles homered in 24 of 28 games in May, hitting 47 for the month. Again, pitching problems caused them to lose one game in which they homered four times and another when they hit three home runs.

Asked about the most discernible improvement in his team from month to month, Miller cited its hitting. After hitting .250 and averaging 4.86 runs per game in April, they batted .285 and averaged 5.75 runs.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Seattle Mariners

Site: Kingdome, Seattle

Time: 10:35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: O's Mike Mussina (7-2, 4.21) vs. Mariners' John Halama (3-2, 4.78)

Late O's game

Last night's Orioles-Mariners game at the Kingdome in Seattle did not end in time to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http: //www.sunspot.net. For a report on last night's game and other Orioles information, call SunDial at 410-783-1800, ext. 5023 (in Anne Arundel County, call 410-268-7736, ext. 5023).

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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