ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Another round of interleague play greets the Orioles tonight in Montreal. After last night's 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they should count their blessings the Expos belong to the National rather than the International League.
Three days ago the Orioles were rolling, having captured six of seven games with two remaining against their league's worst team. Last night they packed after being handcuffed for a second straight game by a pitcher who had done significant time this season at Triple-A. What Cory Lidle did to them on Wednesday, Bryan Rekar accomplished before 14,108 at Tropicana Field.
Rekar left with his first win as a starter since last July 10 but he may have also suffered a mild case of whiplash. The Orioles repeatedly drove his outfielders into the gaps only to be denied by extended catches.
In a loss that contained substance, the Orioles celebrated another solid start by Scott Erickson, who wasn't rewarded for a tight eight-inning performance.
Backed by closer Roberto Hernandez's two-out save, Rekar initiated a six-hitter that frustrated the Orioles on numerous long fly balls while never allowing them multiple baserunners.
The 2:06 sprint - 53 minutes faster than the Orioles' average time of game - required a collaborative effort by Erickson. No longer in need of coddling following spring surgery, Erickson earned a 123-pitch complete game that lowered the rotation's ERA to 3.11 over the last 16 games. Orioles starters have 14 quality starts but only five wins in that span.
"He did everything you'd want to see," said pitching coach Sammy Ellis. "His velocity was up and he had movement on his sinker. To have that much movement, you have to be doing things right mechanically. He looked strongest to me in the seventh and eighth innings. I think he was."
"The key component to getting where we want to be is that we pitch well," said Hargrove. "We have to pitch well. We've just got to take advantage of these outings when these guys throw well."
Last night's outage darkened Erickson's most encouraging start since returning from March arthroscopic elbow surgery. Erickson surrendered seven hits through six innings, but was victimized because the Devil Rays twice bunched three in an inning.
"He's fine. He's ready to roll. Heck, he's been rolling," said Ellis.
Declaring himself "close," Erickson said, "I'm still not in midseason form." His next test, he said, is to carry the same stuff without an additional day's rest between starts.
For a second consecutive outing, Erickson showed solid control. He walked no one until losing Gerald Williams with two outs in the seventh inning and struck out a season-high six.
Erickson (2-2) also couldn't hoist his offense. If not for Brady Anderson's sixth-inning double and ninth-inning home run, the Orioles would have gone a second consecutive game without an extra-base hit. They did, however, drive numerous pitches early in counts.
"He pitched a good game and they played a good game defensively," said left fielder B.J. Surhoff.
Rekar almost joined Oakland's Tim Hudson as the second pitcher to shut out the Orioles within a week, leaving them with a total of three runs in their last three losses. Rekar's previous low-hit complete game was an eight-hitter against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1995. This time, Rekar came within two outs of his first shutout and needed only 86 pitches to get 25 outs.
"He didn't exactly come right at us. He didn't show us his fastball and say, `Here it is.' But he did throw strikes early. We were aggressive and hit the ball hard. They made some nice plays," said Surhoff.
Opponents had pummeled the Devil Rays for a combined 29 runs in Rekar's last four starts. The right-hander surrendered 16 hits and 12 earned runs in his previous two starts covering a total eight innings. This time, less than two weeks after he was promoted from the bullpen, Rekar offered the most surprising outing the Orioles have witnessed this season.
"Bryan got a lot of ground balls, a lot of quick outs and didn't throw very many pitches at all," said Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild, far less animated compared to Wednesday's controversial ending. "And Erickson was pretty similar to that. We made some nice plays in the outfield."
First baseman Will Clark reflected on the number of line drive outs and said of the Orioles' collective 6-for-30game, "That was very misleading ... very misleading."
Now 9-19 on the road, the big-swinging Orioles had little to show against Rekar (2-3) as he only faced one more than the minimum number of hitters through five innings and just three more than the minimum for 8 1/3 innings. A promising second inning fizzled for the Orioles when designated hitter Albert Belle tried to stretch the first of his two singles and was thrown out by left fielder Randy Winn for the inning's first out. Clark followed with another single but was immediately erased on Cal Ripken's double-play grounder.
The Orioles next put a runner into scoring position on Anderson's two-out double in the sixth inning but could not score.
Without a power presence, the Orioles again showed themselves vulnerable. They lost, 4-3, on Wednesday while going without an extra-base hit for the third time this season.
Erickson nearly avoided damage from Winn's double to lead off the first inning, but was burned on a two-out single by Wednesday's hero, first baseman Fred McGriff, who singled to right field.
The Devil Rays took their first two-run lead of the series in the fifth inning when No. 9 hitter Felix Martinez singled, stole second base on a strikeout of Winn and scored on Williams' single.
Opponent: Montreal Expos
Site: Olympic Stadium, Montreal
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starter: Orioles' Jason Johnson (0-3, 4.25 vs. Expos' Carl Pavano (5-2, 3.29)