Sox foil sock-less O's, 2-1

Boston wins series, stops surge, yielding 1 run in last 2 games

Portugal out-duels Mussina

Ace strikes out 10

Belle HR lone attack

June 25, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The planets seemed to be perfectly aligned for an Orioles victory last night. Ace Mike Mussina was on the mound, facing a guy with a 5.56 ERA. Boston Red Sox offensive cornerstone Nomar Garciaparra was in the training room, nursing a strained thigh.

What the Orioles had not bargained for was the strong performance of Red Sox right-hander Mark Portugal, who pitched just long enough and just well enough to earn a 2-1 decision in the deciding game of an important three-game series at Camden Yards.

Mussina struck out 10 on the way to his third complete game of the season, but two runs was too many in a game that the Orioles clearly needed to win to keep their midseason comeback on track. The competition only gets tougher this weekend when the defending world champion New York Yankees arrive for a three-game series.

Portugal lasted seven innings and gave up a run on six hits to register only his fourth victory in 10 decisions this year, but it was a big one. The Red Sox benefited from a two-game swing that moved them 9 1/2 games ahead of the Orioles in the American League wild-card standings.

Where has all the offense gone? The Orioles were averaging seven runs per game during the 11-1 run that pulled them out of a long tailspin, but they managed only one run in the final two games of the series against the Red Sox -- and they didn't even have to face Boston ace Pedro Martinez.

"It's tough," said manager Ray Miller. "We scored a ton of runs last week. We scored a ton of runs in Atlanta. We're on pace to fall just shy of 900 runs for the entire season. Unfortunately, things even out sometimes."

In all, Orioles hitters managed just two runs in 18 2/3 innings against the Red Sox rotation, getting their lone win in the series with a late-inning comeback.

Mussina looked like he might be untouchable after he needed just 11 pitches to strike out the side in the first, but he got hardly a whiff of the offensive support that has complemented the rejuvenated starting rotation throughout the club's recent hot streak.

"If I go nine innings and give up two runs, don't walk anyone and strike out 10, I'm not going to beat myself up over a game that nine times out of 10 we win," said Mussina, who dropped to 9-4.

Portugal didn't look nearly as intimidating, but he got the big outs when he needed them and then turned a one-run lead over to reliever Rheal Cormier in the eighth. Fill-in closer Tim Wakefield came on to get the last four outs to record his seventh save and the Red Sox stayed one game behind the first-place Yankees in the American League East.

"The reason they are leading the league in ERA is because they pitch well," Miller said. "The reason they won the wild card last year is because they pitch well. I was worried about [Bret] Saberhagen last night, but I thought we would get some runs against Portugal."

The only run Portugal surrendered was Albert Belle's 15th home run, a second-inning blast that evened the score after Boston left fielder Troy O'Leary launched a bases-empty home run for the Red Sox's first hit off Mussina in the top of the inning.

Belle's resurgence should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his career statistics. He has a history of starting slowly and then gathering steam in June and July. In fact, it was a slow start in 1995 that cost him the AL Most Valuable Player Award, because the Cleveland Indians already were running away with the AL Central when his bat finally kicked into gear.

This year, it could work in his favor, since his resurgence at the plate has coincided with the Orioles' midseason turnaround. Belle's contribution with the bat and his underrated sense of humor (Rochester boycott, anyone?) could loom very large if the club comes all the way back.

The home run, which landed in the upper bullpen behind center field, was his fifth in the last nine games and it pulled him to within one home run of club leader B. J. Surhoff. Belle also added a single in the third as he continues to build up a batting average that had slipped as low as .232 in May.

Belle has been at the center of a couple of controversies during the past few weeks, getting into a shouting match with manager Ray Miller in Florida on June 9 and posting a petition to encourage teammates to boycott the team's upcoming exhibition game against Triple-A Rochester.

In each case, he has refused to explain himself, and also has declined to be interviewed about the positive contributions that he has made on the field. Instead of honoring the section of his $65 million contract that calls for him to cooperate with the media, he has instead posted a sign telling media members to channel interview requests through his Web site. Trouble is, the site does not accept e-mail.

He does, however, explain in his weekly Web site journal that he was just trying to entertain his teammates with the Rochester petition, which would be in keeping with his laugh-a-minute clubhouse reputation.

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