O's don't ace Texas test, 8-6

Mussina yields 7 runs in 4 2/3

win streak ends, playoff doubts grow

Anderson: 2 HRs, speaks out

`You don't break up positive parts of team'

July 28, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Even if it lacked playoff bite, last night's game against the Texas Rangers was supposed to carry playoff implications for the Orioles. Win and the possibility of a two-month wild-card run grows. Lose and the reality created by a disastrous April becomes harder to escape.

The Orioles sent their Mr. October, Mike Mussina, to the mound. They scored first when Albert Belle crushed his fourth home run in five at-bats and seventh in 10 games to provide an early lead. But the Rangers, the only major-league team hotter than the Orioles, are a playoff lock. Even without leading run producer Juan Gonzalez they complicated any postseason dreams by sending the Orioles to an 8-6 loss and ending their six-game win streak.

Two home runs by Brady Anderson and a two-run shot by Belle weren't enough to overcome Mussina's uncharacteristically dull outing. A recovering bullpen followed Sunday's seven shutout innings with another credible 4 1/3 innings. But Mussina (13-5) instead suffered his first loss since June 24 and worst performance since April. And despite the Toronto Blue Jays' loss, the Orioles front office was shoved another half-step toward hard decisions.

Anderson, who broke out of a home run drought extending to June 20 in a big way, spoke up for the status quo afterward.

"Maybe they're trying to determine whether they should be adding some players," said Anderson, who had four RBIs. "When you look at this team objectively, there are always spots where you think you can improve yourself. But you don't take the things that are good you don't take the positive parts of the team and break it up.

"Look at Arthur," he said of Rhodes, who contributed 1 1/3 innings of shutout relief. "It's ridiculous. The guy throws 95 [mph]. Who are you going to get that's better? He can throw middle relief, short relief. You need to hang on to guys like that. That's why I'm not really surprised they haven't traded anybody. I know Peter [Angelos] wants to compete year by year. He doesn't want to give up on any year. You don't do it by giving up a Scott Erickson, an Arthur Rhodes, a Mike Timlin, anybody. Sometimes [a subpar year] averages out the next season."

A Camden Yards crowd of 42,949 hung on every pitch when Cal Ripken stepped into the box. Anticipating career home run No. 400, a thousand sparkles flashed on each pitch, hoping to freeze the moment that seemed impossibly distant in April but now teases with its inevitability.

Ripken grounded to short to begin the second inning. In the fourth, with runners at first and second, Ripken drove a pitch back at Sele, who reacted reflexively to save himself and wound up with a catch and throw for an inning-ending double play.

Ripken returned in the sixth inning with his pursuit of 400 the game's only suspense. He reached when Zeile boxed his grounder and returned in the eighth to walk.

The suspense surrounding Ripken coincided with the Orioles' three-day evaluation of whether to continue a chase for the wild card or call it a season and begin retooling for 2000 and beyond.

It may only be late July but the Orioles' front office can be forgiven their scoreboard watching. The mathematics for a club that entered the night nine games behind Toronto don't allow for losing streaks, halting starts from the rotation or offensive blackouts.

Belle's two-out home run to left field provided brief encouragement in the first inning as Mussina gripped a 2-0 lead.

But soon Mussina found himself struggling with his second-shortest start this season.

Mussina received his first break before the game even started. Gonzalez was scratched because of recurring pain in his right wrist, which was injured Friday. Though Gonzalez carries only a .222 career average against Mussina, he has five home runs and nine RBIs in 45 at-bats. His absence allowed Mark McLemore to move from second base to right field and Luis Alicea to be inserted at second.

Alicea entered hitting only .165 without a home run in 103 at-bats. He shocked Mussina in the second inning by yanking a two-run homer inside the right-field foul pole.

The blast may have been a rare occurrence for Alicea but it suggested the extent of Mussina's struggles. He would allow 13 of 27 hitters to reach and allowed 11 hits, four for extra bases, in 4 2/3 innings. The hits allowed equaled a season high set April 21 in Tampa Bay, a 3 2/3-inning trauma in which Mussina surrendered 10 earned runs.

The Rangers followed Alicea's homer with singles by Royce Clayton and Ivan Rodriguez. A drive by Rusty Greer to right field proved the inning's telling moment.

Belle, who later contributed an assist to stop a fourth-inning run, retreated but appeared to misjudge the wall, stopping before he reached it. His leap left him too short of the drive that hit behind him beneath the scoreboard. A clean double scored Clayton and Rodriguez for a 4-2 lead.

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