Bullpen, Belle cap sweep of Rangers

6 shutout innings mix with 6-RBI night for 5th straight, 10-1

June 16, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

What a difference a bullpen makes.

The Orioles continued to learn the lesson under duress last night. They found it a fulfilling experience.

Forced to Plan B by a 2-hour, 7-minute rain delay, manager Mike Hargrove called upon what has been the most scrutinized part of his team. His return was six shutout innings in a 10-1 win over the Texas Rangers before a misleading announced crowd of 46,884 at Camden Yards.

Not only did the win complete a three-game sweep of the struggling Rangers, who have lost eight straight, it also pushed the Orioles' winning streak to five and gave reason to believe the worst may be over for a bullpen tattered in April and May but now reinforced by the addition of Alan Mills. The Orioles also pulled within 6 1/2 games of the American League East lead, the closest they've been since May 9.

Five relievers beginning with Chuck McElroy (1-0) and ending with Mike Trombley combined for six shutout innings in relief of Sidney Ponson. The performance dropped the bullpen ERA to 6.03, its lowest since May 11, and left it with an ERA of 2.12 in its past 17 innings.

"That's the beauty of this game. These guys do have track records. You know it's there. You just have to be patient and allow them to find themselves," Hargrove said. "Chuck early on wasn't pretty. He'd admit that. But he's turned it around and pitched himself back into the meaningful part of games."

The Orioles made a loser of Rangers starter Esteban Loaiza (3-5) with Albert Belle's two home runs and six RBIs and two RBIs from designated hitter Harold Baines.

One night after blowing a five-run lead in an 11-10 win, the Orioles played ahead throughout thanks to Belle's power surge and the tag-team bullpen.

"We don't have a bullpen that blows people away but we have a bullpen that's competitive and keeps us in games," Hargrove said. "These guys are starting to settle into their jobs and do what was expected of them in spring training."

For Belle, it's starting to look like summer. He almost concedes April and May as tough months, but June represents a turnaround. Last year he hit .314 for the month with seven home runs. Last night's blasts were Belle's seventh and eighth home runs in the past 16 games, and his 21 RBIs over the span have given him the team lead.

Belle's six RBIs matched a career high, his 13th home run tied Cal Ripken for the team lead and his slugging percentage has overtaken Charles Johnson as the club's highest.

Even with a sluggish April, Belle's 32 extra-base hits easily lead the team. However, his penchant for doubles has been replaced by balls driven deep to left field. Wednesday night, he mashed his 12th career grand slam into the webbing inside the left-field foul pole. He finished last night's six-run eighth inning with a grand slam off Mark Clark, giving him 10 RBIs in the past two nights.

"Albert is Albert. He's an RBI monster," Hargrove said.

The night before, Belle's slam provided a 4-0 lead that eventually was squandered by shaky starting pitching and uneven defense. This time, the Orioles pressed for a 2-0 lead when Baines followed singles by Ripken and Will Clark and a wild pitch with a drive off Loaiza's midsection. Baines was thrown out at first while Ripken scored.

This time, a two-run lead found a steady hand and a revamped bullpen. The Rangers pulled within a run, created a sixth-inning scare and then were finished by McElroy's revival, the return of Alan Mills and Molina's sixth-inning escape.

Ponson, who had cleared at least eight innings in his past four starts, hinted at another brilliant performance before being interrupted by the weather. He had mixed 34 strikes among 49 pitches, struck out four and suffered a two-out run in third inning after issuing his only walk to extend the inning.

Gabe Kapler began the rally by grounding a single past Ripken at third. Dave Martinez walked on a full count to push the runner into scoring position. Rusty Greer then scored Kapler with a lined hit past Mike Bordick's dive.

While Rangers manager Johnny Oates allowed Loaiza to wait out the delay and return, Hargrove saw no reason to toy with his 23-year-old's health. McElroy extended his nine-game recovery by following Ponson with two shutout innings, leaving him with only one run allowed in 12 innings over nine games since May 10.

He became the second reliever in as many nights to inherit a lead before the fifth inning, making him the pitcher of record.

There was a time when summoning McElroy represented a risk. Last night, removing him after two shutout innings appeared a gamble as Molina came on in the sixth inning to face the middle of the Rangers' lineup.

"We've been through a whole lot as a group here. ... We kept fighting and fighting. But we've never been fighting ourselves," McElroy said. "Even with all the stuff we went through early in the year, we tried to keep each other up. There were a lot of times early in the year when we were trying to be too fine, walking guys."

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