Belle's HR in 8th lifts O's, 5-3

2-strike, 3-run shot caps O's 4-run inning to down Red Sox

Win is 11th in 12 games

Surhoff's streak ends

Timlin: 2 saves in row

June 23, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

In what may come to be remembered as the most pivotal moment of the first half's most pivotal stretch, right fielder Albert Belle capped a four-run eighth inning last night with a one-out, three-run homer off John Wasdin to strong-arm the Orioles to a 5-3 win over the Boston Red Sox. After a silent spring, the Orioles now anticipate Belle's nuclear summer.

"Albert doesn't surprise me in anything he does. Albert could hit six home runs in a game. He has the ability to do that," said manager Ray Miller. "I just know it's not possible to be hot all the time. If Albert hit the way he did from the middle of May last year to the end of the year, he would have hit .450 and driven in 200 runs. Nobody's done that."

The win not only represented the Orioles' 11th in 12 games, it might also mean the emergence of a fearsome lineup driven by the game's most prolific run-producer, a player so far recognized for his shortcomings but on this night lavished for his ability to feed on drama.

Down 3-1 with six outs left, the 32-37 Orioles scored four times off three pitchers, including Mark Guthrie (0-1). They finished the win by celebrating Mike Timlin's second save in as many games plus the latest in 22-year-old right-hander Sidney Ponson's run of commanding starts.

Unable to do damage against surprise Red Sox starter Pat Rapp, the Orioles rallied behind a pair of soft singles to begin the eighth inning. Sabotaged by two base-running blunders earlier in the game, they loaded the bases with three consecutive hits from Charles Johnson, Brady Anderson and Mike Bordick, whose inability to bunt on the first two strikes gave the Orioles an important additional out. Though his 21-game hitting streak died on the swing, B. J. Surhoff pulled the Orioles within 3-2 on a sacrifice fly to right field.

Red Sox manager Jimy Williams responded to the approaching Belle by lifting left-hander Guthrie for Wasdin. Closer Tom Gordon (elbow strain) is not an option for this series.

Unwilling to pitch around Belle with the go-ahead run at first base and left-handed-hitting Harold Baines on deck, Wasdin was able to get ahead of Belle, 1-2.

The Orioles -- seven losses down to the Red Sox -- might eventually look upon what happened next as the start of something dramatic. Belle, who declined to comment afterward, reversed the game by driving a low, inside fastball into the left-center-field bleachers for his fourth home run in seven games.

Recently targeted by Camden Yards boo birds, Belle circled the bases quickly, touched fists with his teammates and remained in the dugout despite a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd of 43,329.

With Belle as a force, the Orioles are potentially the league's most prolific offense. They have elevated themselves to third in hitting and fourth in runs despite Belle representing the baggage car rather than the engine during much of this season. That now appears to have changed.

"Two weeks ago, he was hitting .260 and we were hitting .274 as a team, which is pretty good. Now we're hitting .284," Miller said. " If Albert's clicking, we've got a decent chance of getting decent production in the three guys behind him, too."

The ending represented a high point for Timlin, who has gradually restored his standing with Miller to regain co-closer status. Timlin has pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings in his past five appearances.

"I was pretty nervous," Timlin said. "The way I've been throwing at Camden Yards, I think I've thrown better away. I know I can throw better here. I just need to quit putting so much pressure on myself and just let the ball ride. If they're going to hit it, they're going to hit it."

The start included a little intrigue as well as Williams tinkered with his rotation, replacing scheduled starter Mark Portugal with Rapp, who beat the Orioles once without a loss in four starts for Kansas City last season. Coincidentally, the adjustment put ace Pedro Martinez on pace to start the July 13 All-Star Game on four days' rest. This year's game will be played at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox had won only three of Rapp's previous nine starts. Rapp had survived six innings as many times (five) as he had failed to clear the fourth inning.

His career 2.92 ERA vs. the Orioles proved the stronger trend as only a second-inning outfield snafu allowed them a 1-0 lead. Consecutive walks to Baines and Clark -- Rapp's second and third to the first six hitters he faced -- became something bigger when Cal Ripken looped a fly ball between left fielder Troy O'Leary and center fielder Darren Lewis.

Baines held second until the ball dropped. Clark got a better read and was on the designated hitter's heels when they approached third. Third base coach Sam Perlozzo averted disaster when he screamed at Baines to score while holding Clark. The 1-0 lead looked like it might grow on Jerry Hairston's fly to medium left field. Clark scored without challenge but was then called out on appeal for tagging prematurely.

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