No longer comfortable mingling with the bashers in the American League, the Orioles have been scraping for runs to avoid wasting quality starts from their pitchers. They made sure last night to reward Jose Mercedes, who didn't need to be spoiled with offensive riches.
He didn't need much of anything besides a few more feet in right field, which might have preserved his first shutout in three years.
Mark Lewis broke a scoreless tie in the fifth inning, and Mercedes allowed only an infield hit and bases-empty home run in a 5-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers before 31,383, the smallest crowd for a regularly scheduled game in the history of Camden Yards.
Lewis singled off the scoreboard in right to deliver Chris Richard with the game's first run and point the Orioles (60-72) toward their seventh win in 10 tries. Richard had gotten into position with a leadoff walk off Hideo Nomo (5-11) and the Orioles' 100th stolen base of the season.
It was their first run off Nomo in 12 innings this season, and it came in what's been typical Orioles fashion. A walk, a steal, a grounder to the right side and a fly ball. This one just happened to slam into the scoreboard.
The Orioles removed the shackles in the sixth inning, scoring four times for a 5-0 lead. Albert Belle drove in two runs with a bases-loaded single, his first multi-RBI game since Aug. 12 in Kansas City, and the Tigers again failed to climb above .500 this season.
The only hit off Mercedes through 7 2/3 innings came when Damion Easley beat out a grounder to short with two outs in the second, which seemed meaningless at the time until it became the only thing preventing Mercedes (10-5) from flirting with history. Melvin Mora backhanded the ball deep in the hole before throwing late.
The shutout was lost in the eighth when, with two outs, Brad Ausmus lifted a fly ball that barely reached the flag court in right, but Mercedes posted his first complete-game since Aug. 24, 1997, against Detroit. He had retired 16 in a row after a third-inning walk to Jose Macias, once blowing a 95-mph fastball past Juan Gonzalez. He never threw more than 14 pitches in an inning, and even frustrated Easley, who was ejected in the eighth for arguing a called third strike.
"Everything was working tonight. I was feeling fine physically. I didn't give them time to think about it. I was going, going, going," said Mercedes, who is 3-0 against the Tigers this season.
"I'm just trying to do my best every time I go out there."
Said Ausmus: "Every pitch has movement. It sinks, it cuts. It's difficult to put the barrel of the bat on the ball. I just hit a first-pitch fastball that didn't move. It might have been the only pitch that didn't move."
Before last night, the Orioles had scored more than four runs only once since Aug. 17. During that span they were averaging 2.6 runs a game. Eliminate the eight they scored on Aug. 24, and the average dipped to 1.9 in 10 games.
Once highly dependent on the three-run homer, the Orioles had collected at least that many runs in an inning only three times since Aug. 14. But they've found ways to win, especially with Mercedes pitching. The Orioles are 15-14 since completing their final trades before the waiver deadline on July 31.
Taking a huge cut has been replaced by taking the extra base. Opponents are peppered rather than pounded. It's a different brand of baseball, one that mostly has met with the approval of manager Mike Hargrove.
"We've held our own for the most part and we've played the game the way it's supposed to be played," he said. "We've been aggressive both on the bases and with the bat, and when we've been given the chance to win a game, we've made a pretty good run at it. Those things are positives.
"But whether you've got a veteran club or a young club, whether you're in a fight for the division title or the wild card, or if you're not, the outcome all depends on how well you pitch, which sometimes can be a little more apparent with a young club. Overall I've been very pleased with the progress that we've shown. I think we still have a long way to go, but the patience is there to allow these kids to develop and become major-league players."
Mercedes is becoming one of the more unlikely success stories of 2000.
A nonroster invitee at spring training who twice was banished to the bullpen, Mercedes is 7-1 with a 2.94 ERA in the second half to tie Andy Pettitte for the most wins in the league since the break. His 10 wins overall are three more than his previous career high.
The club's only starter above .500, he also became its first double-digit winner.
"He was awfully good. He threw strikes, he was ahead of a lot of hitters, he kept them off-stride, kept the ball down and kept it out of the middle of the plate," Hargrove said.
Mercedes also changed speeds effectively. He began the game with two fastballs that were clocked at 86 mph, then popped one at 94.