Orioles carry out sweet, sour

Erickson drops Phils, 6-2, but at 4-8 takes little joy into break

36-51 half inspires few smiles

Starter attracts scouts, as O's purge looms

July 12, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Scott Erickson was a man of few words and many pitches at Veterans Stadium yesterday. He needed 131 pitches, barely half of them strikes, to survive eight innings and take a 6-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. Then Erickson showered, dressed quickly, gave a few dismissive answers and rushed to catch a flight for Lake Tahoe.

Within minutes of his first win in almost a month, Erickson had disappeared.

So it goes with the Orioles, Team Scowl. They reach the All-Star break 36-51, 16 1/2 games out of first place, 12 1/2 games behind the wild-card front-running Boston Red Sox and with a lesser record than at last season's intermission (38-50).

Yesterday's win gave them a series victory over one of the National League's most surprising and exciting teams, a club comprising younger, enthusiastic players who suggest a franchise on the upswing, a club dissimilar to the Orioles.

But for some, even when things go right, talking about it is a pain.

Erickson (4-8) won for the first time since June 14 and extended his string of starts without a loss to seven. Out of a potentially horrid first three months he has constructed an encouraging run of three straight quality starts in which he has compiled a 3.38 ERA in 21 1/3 innings.

"Obviously, we want to pitch better than we pitched in the first half," said manager Ray Miller. "Maybe we've made strides toward that. I don't know. The last couple days have looked pretty good."

The rotation has produced 12 quality starts (a minimum six innings and a maximum three earned runs) during the Orioles' 4-14 slide while the team ERA continues its trend of improving every month.

For a second consecutive game, the Orioles led throughout. They reached struggling Phillies starter Chad Ogea (4-9) for four runs in four innings, beginning with B. J. Surhoff's RBI double and Will Clark's one-out single in the first inning. Consecutive two-out doubles by Clark and Charles Johnson in the third inning bumped the lead to 3-0, and Brady Anderson scored Jerry Hairston with a botched pop-up in the fourth for a 4-0 cushion.

Erickson benefited from three double plays in the first four innings. He would walk four and hit a batter, but appeared more comfortable pitching from the stretch, a weakness that has hurt him.

In many ways, Erickson embodies the Orioles -- gifted but often confused and underachieving. His 0-5 April mirrored an abysmal start by the rotation. His recent improvement also has coincided with the starters' return to credibility.

Erickson may be among those Orioles targeted for trade during an anticipated July purge. Cleveland Indians special assignment scout Bud Black caught Erickson's last two starts. New York Mets major-league scout and former Orioles coach John Stearns also watched with keen interest.

The question: Is Erickson's difficult season the product of a poor relationship with pitching coach Bruce Kison, lesser infield defense or serious problems in Erickson's mechanics?

Miller acknowledged Erickson's mechanics yesterday. Erickson did also, albeit briefly.

"My mechanics are a little bit better," he said. "Before, I was dropping on the ball. Now, I'm staying on top and throwing on a better downward angle."

"Bruce has tried pretty much the same thing all year. I think Scotty got a little more receptive to it recently," said Miller. "He threw some off-speed pitches today, some breaking balls. It's not that you want to make him a junkballer, but he's got to do some of that."

Erickson lost his shutout in the eighth inning, when Anderson broke slowly in center field on Ron Gant's liner, which ended up as an RBI triple. A relaxed infield conceded a second run. Mike Timlin followed with a perfect ninth inning for the second time in 24 hours.

Asked about ongoing trade speculation, Erickson said: "I don't think about it."

Orioles pitching has meanwhile improved to ninth best in the league, but the bullpen remains branded as second-worst ahead of only Seattle. General manager Frank Wren has counseled Miller on adhering to roles for his relievers, apparently with recent success.

"This game is all about pitching. Everybody knows that. It's all about pitching," said Clark.

Turnaround talk has virtually evaporated. A year ago, Miller was able to muster words of encouragement at this juncture, but yesterday he sounded resigned to the reality of a transitional period.

"That decision is going to be made by ownership and Frank. I've got some ideas. I'll be asked; I've been asked. Now, I'd just like these guys to clear their heads and come back fresh. If the pitching improves, we'll be a better club. But I also know the importance of team speed," Miller said. "The only negative thing I can say about our offense is the [lack of] foot speed. It has affected us in certain games. You can't run for everybody."

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