Johnson reconnects, 6-2

2nd game-winning HR in 2 nights backs Rapp, who escapes Indians

April 07, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

He was signed only three weeks before the opening of camp to a contract with few guarantees, a $750,000 base salary and a sliver of opportunity. He's a breaking ball pitcher frequently scrutinized for needing too many pitches to get a nominal number of outs. In many ways, Pat Rapp symbolizes an uncertain Orioles pitching staff pieced together with baling wire, guts and retread arms.

Last night, Rapp conspired with a wisecracking first baseman and a quick-starting catcher for something remarkable.

The Orioles took a series from the Cleveland Indians by winning, 6-2, before a Camden Yards crowd of 35,181 that serenaded the defending AL Central champions as "overrated." They were certainly outplayed.

Rapp, February's No. 5 starter turned linchpin, became the third Orioles starting pitcher in as many games to clear at least six innings while catcher Charles Johnson broke a 2-2 tie with a three-run, sixth-inning home run.

Playing on a discolored right shin, Will Clark contributed three hits and was central to both of his team's telling rallies.

And somewhere, Mike Hargrove fought back a chuckle and a grin.

With Hargrove in the dugout, the Indians took nine of 10 games from the disintegrating Orioles last season. Without him, they were beaten twice in late innings as Hargrove's successor, excitable Charlie Manuel, was ejected for a second straight night for arguing balls and strikes.

"It's nice to win a series against a quality ballclub like that," Hargrove said afterward, a cigar smoldering in his office ashtray. "Does it mean everything? No. And if you believe that you're setting yourself up for a fall down the line."

After an inopportune offensive effort in Monday's 4-1 season-opening loss, Hargrove's Orioles pounded five home runs while scoring 17 runs the last two nights. By refusing to panic during Sidney Ponson's troubled second inning Wednesday night, Hargrove left his bullpen in order, even with closer Mike Timlin likely headed to the disabled list today with a torn abdominal muscle. And for at least one day the Orioles can celebrate a winning record for the first time since Opening Day 1999.

A year ago they didn't win a series until their eighth of the season and needed 25 games before winning back-to-back decisions.

Johnson turned the game with a three-run homer off Indians starter Charles Nagy that was followed by Mike Bordick's bases-empty shot. The home run was Johnson's third in 24 hours and left him with eight RBIs, as many as he produced in last season's first 30 games. All three of Johnson's home runs have given the Orioles a lead.

"To me, that's very satisfying. When the game's on the line, to be able to help us get ahead is big," Johnson said.

The win was spiced by Cal Ripken's 2,993rd career hit -- a two-hop grounder that bounced off third base to begin the damage in the sixth inning. Ripken's hit coincided with his adopting a more upright, relaxed stance. In the fourth inning, he drove a ball to the warning track for the first time this year, spring training included.

But to Hargrove and virtually everyone watching, Rapp permanently changed the game by stiffing the Indians after they loaded the bases with none out in the fifth. The Boston Red Sox exile escaped the jam by striking out second baseman Roberto Alomar on a questionable outside fastball then got right fielder Manny Ramirez to one-hop another outside fastball back to the mound, where Rapp began an inning-ending double play.

"That was a gutsy performance by Pat," said Johnson. "He was in a tough situation with the meat of the order coming up."

The Alomar strikeout became the catalyst for Manuel's ejection, a protracted thing that caused several officials from both teams to question his thinking.

"I was lucky to get a quick strikeout and get Ramirez to ground into a double play. You pray for those things to happen, and I got lucky and it happened today," said Rapp.

"That was huge. That was the game," Hargrove said. "You could really feel the momentum switch."

The Orioles had grabbed a 1-0 lead when Delino DeShields tagged from third base on Albert Belle's foul pop down the right-field line. They tied the game, 2-2, when Ripken scored on Bordick's second-inning grounder.

Just as Ponson threatened to self-destruct in Wednesday's second inning, Rapp almost did the same against the league's most explosive lineup.

Rapp, who entered spring training as the projected No. 5 starter and exited as the No. 3, punished himself last night in the second inning by serving back-to-back one-out walks to Richie Sexson and David Justice.

Travis Fryman forced a tie game with a single to right field but became the inning's second out when he tried to stretch it against right fielder Belle. Belle's assist became bigger when Sandy Alomar followed with another single that scored Justice for a 2-1 lead. But then Rapp escaped.

Many hitters slog through April; Clark attacks the month.

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