The Orioles' search for a reliable closer has brought them to a rookie who was pitching at Double-A last season. Their faith went unrewarded last night. A solution remains at large.
Willie Greene crushed a two-run homer off Gabe Molina in the ninth inning to carry the Toronto Blue Jays to a 7-6 victory over the Orioles before 42,275 at Camden Yards.
Molina, 24, had struck out Jacob Brumfield to end the eighth inning and strand the tying run at second. He retired Homer Bush to open the ninth and got ahead of Shannon Stewart, 0-2, before allowing a single. Greene then torched his former club by driving a 1-2 slider over the scoreboard in right, the 20th blown save for the Orioles (34-49) this season.
"They've been throwing me off-speed all night," Greene said. "I was sitting on the curveball. What else would you sit on if you were in that situation?"
In keeping with the Orioles' luck, he was looking for one pitch, got another and still connected.
Greene has been a royal pain to the Orioles. His sharp grounder fractured Will Clark's thumb on April 18, and his tying homer off Mike Timlin at SkyDome on June 30 led to a 10-inning win.
Timlin, who took the loss Tuesday, had been warming last night as the ninth inning started. He stopped to watch the Blue Jays complete their 10th win over the Orioles in 11 games this year.
"The kid was ahead of everybody," said manager Ray Miller. "He hung one pitch and [Greene] hit it out. I was looking for a breath of fresh air."
Once again, the Orioles gagged.
"I want to give the kid a chance and I hope he handles it well," Miller said of Molina, who had thrown two scoreless innings Monday in New York. "I like him. He gets the ball over the plate. He throws hard and he has a good, late breaking ball.
"We didn't have [Doug] Johns today and I didn't really want to put Arthur [Rhodes] in that situation right now. I'm trying to establish some sort of sequence for everybody."
Molina, who was called up from Triple-A Rochester for a second time on July 2, assumed the position last night: An Orioles closer standing at his locker to face the music.
"It was a slider and I kind of hung it," he said. "I thought it was the right pitch to throw. I'm not second-guessing myself.
"I was excited to go out there and try to close it for us and get the monkey off our backs. I just have to shake it off. That's the game of baseball. I've got to come out tomorrow and try it again."
The Orioles could have given Molina more of a cushion in the eighth, but Brady Anderson struck out with two runners aboard. And they could have bailed him out in the ninth after a leadoff single by Will Clark, but pinch-runner Rich Amaral was thrown out trying to steal while Blue Jays closer Billy Koch struck out B. J. Surhoff.
Bruised by a jagged first inning, Orioles starter Jason Johnson made a fast recovery and held down the Blue Jays while his club unloaded on Joey Hamilton. But once again, a game stretched too long for the Orioles to manage.
Cal Ripken had broke a 3-3 tie with a two-run homer in the fourth inning, his 12th this season and the 396th of his career to match former teammate Joe Carter for 31st place all time. He also singled twice and raised his average to .317.
Harold Baines homered in a three-run second and Mike Bordick singled in a run in the fourth, as the Orioles wasted a 13-hit attack.
The Blue Jays scored twice in the eighth to cut their deficit to 6-5. Molina allowed a two-out, two-run single to Tony Batista after replacing Jesse Orosco, who walked left-handed-hitting Darrin Fletcher. Scott Kamieniecki had started the inning and was removed after issuing two walks.
Batista's single scored Greene with the fourth run. Tony Fernandez held up at third until seeing right fielder Albert Belle's throw go behind second, then raced home.
Johnson allowed three runs (two earned) in the first inning, then gave the Blue Jays nothing until being removed after the sixth. They managed only three hits off him, one after the first.
The Orioles, and particularly Jeff Conine, got off to an inauspicious start.
Conine couldn't reach two foul pops that stayed in play and committed back-to-back errors when throws sailed past his glove, including an attempted pickoff from Johnson. All four mishaps occurred before the second hitter had completed his at-bat.
Anyone believe in omens?
The Blue Jays sent nine batters to the plate and scored three times, but it could have been much worse. Appearing ready to come apart at the seams after walking three batters and allowing two singles, Johnson struck out Brumfield and Bush.
To add a little more insult, Anderson was denied a leadoff homer in the first when Brumfield made a leaping catch at the fence. But the Orioles cashed in the next inning.
Baines delivered his 18th homer. Conine followed with a double, and Ripken grounded a single. Rookie Jerry Hairston, whose speed has brought an added dimension to the lineup, beat out a infield hit that scored Conine.
Hamilton drilled Charles Johnson in the left rib cage to load the bases with one out, and Anderson worked the count full before dropping a single into center field to tie the score. Hamilton then went 3-2 on Bordick before inducing the Orioles shortstop to ground into a double play.
Hamilton was gone by the fourth inning last night after giving up six runs and 10 hits. He couldn't hold a 3-0 lead, and he couldn't blame anyone but himself.
Perhaps sensing he wouldn't get much support behind him, Johnson took matters in his own hands after the first. He retired 11 in a row before Stewart led off the fifth with a single up the middle. Johnson struck out Greene and got Shawn Green to hit into a double play.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 3: 05 p.m. TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Blue Jays' Kelvim Escobar (7-6, 5.93) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (7-5, 3.70)
Tickets: About 5,000 remain
Pub Date: 7/08/99