Used Mercedes starts slow, but gets O's to 5-1

Retread pitcher guts out 5 innings

shuffled O's deck Tigers, 11-6

April 10, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Jose Mercedes walked into the Orioles clubhouse yesterday beneath a floppy hat and without a long-sleeve shirt on a day better made for flying kites than heaving baseballs.

After what seemed an eternity but was actually five innings, the Orioles' right-handed reclamation left the game having survived early trauma and a stratospheric pitch count to become the latest player in a weeklong show of bash, perseverance and -- dare it be said -- heightened expectations.

The first-place Orioles seized upon Mercedes' sometimes anxious, but thoroughly gutty start with 16 hits and 11 consecutive runs to strong-arm their fifth straight win, 11-6, over the Detroit Tigers before 42,178 at wind-chilled Camden Yards.

The win lifted them to 5-1 entering a six-game small-market trip to Kansas City and Minnesota. "Everybody's stepped up," said manager Mike Hargrove. "We tried to get everybody at-bats in spring training and keep everybody involved physically and mentally. So far, it's paying dividends. It's an ongoing battle."

The same could be said for Mercedes, who spent last week in Sarasota, Fla., waiting for the team to need a fifth starter. The change in climate and pressure level initially affected him as he threw 48 pitches during an interminable three-run first inning. But there it stopped.

"This was a big day for me," Mercedes said. "I had been waiting for a long time. I pitched against a team I've pitched against before and a manager [Phil Garner] I had before. I wanted to show them I've kept doing what I know how to do."

Hargrove picked yesterday against harried Tigers left-hander C. J. Nitkowski to shuffle his lineup for the first time this season. Center fielder Rich Amaral, rookie catcher Willie Morales and Jeff Conine played in place of Brady Anderson, Charles Johnson and Harold Baines. The manager's reward was three hits from Amaral, two singles from Morales in his major-league debut and three hits plus a productive drive to the warning track from Conine.

Every starter except third baseman Cal Ripken managed a hit and scored a run before the sixth inning. Albert Belle also contributed three hits and scored three runs. B. J. Surhoff and Mike Bordick extended hitting streaks to six games.

"It's nice to be involved like this," Amaral said. "It felt good to get 50 at-bats this spring. It seemed like I was halfway through last season before I got that many."

The Orioles' five wins are only one shy of their April total last season. They didn't manage a win from their No. 5 starter last season until June 20. They didn't receive a second win from their rotation beyond Mike Mussina until May 5.

"It seemed last year we started behind and stayed behind," Conine said. "There seems to be a confidence now that we can come back. This is a good-hitting team."

The Orioles are hitting .319, making a mediocre team ERA (4.58) irrelevant. They have won behind Calvin Maduro and Mercedes and somehow lost behind Mussina. More important, they have reinforced a self-image as being much better than they showed a year ago.

Even after a persuasive spring in which he amassed a 2.70 ERA in nine games, Mercedes could be forgiven if he looked less at ease.

He was making his first major-league start since he was with the Milwaukee Brewers and Garner on May 4, 1998. On that day, he suffered a strained rotator cuff diving back into first base -- something that wouldn't have happened had realignment occurred a year later -- and had to undergo arthroscopic surgery two months later. Released by the Brewers, he signed as a minor-league free agent with the San Diego Padres before last season but never pitched above Triple-A. Released in June, he signed with the Florida Marlins. Released again, he signed with the New York Mets.

The Orioles, who originally signed him in 1989, took a second chance on Mercedes after being impressed by his performance in the Dominican Winter League (5-1, 2.45 ERA for Estrellas).

How Mercedes gained a win is testimony to his resilience and Hargrove's patience. The Tigers took a 3-0 lead after a dreadful sequence that included a leadoff triple, a walk, a botched fielder's choice and, after a strikeout, back-to-back singles. Conine's errant throw home from first base was partly responsible, but Mercedes factored in that mistake as well, cutting in front of Conine.

"I think the adrenalin was flowing very freely," Hargrove said. "That's about the only thing I can attribute it to. Sammy [Ellis, pitching coach] and I were sitting on the bench saying, `What a difference a week makes.' A week or 10 days ago, he couldn't throw a ball off the plate."

Hargrove said he was only "two or three hitters" away from lifting Mercedes, who rallied with a strikeout and an infield pop. He lasted 112 pitches, getting the final out of the fifth inning on Ripken's dive to rob Shane Halter.

"I was kind of worried," said Mercedes, who sneaked a peek at the bullpen during the first inning. "My first time, I know they don't want me throwing a lot of pitches."

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