Orioles waste lead in 4-3 loss

Mercedes weakens, relievers do the rest on walks to Indians

April 07, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND - A dense fog rolled in off Lake Erie last night, crashing the gates at Jacobs Field so forcefully that the Orioles' two-run lead over the Cleveland Indians was placed on hold for eight minutes.

The Orioles couldn't make it last much longer. What emerged from the spooky haze bore an eerily similar look to last season, a year the team spent an entire winter trying to forget.

In less time than it takes to scream "bullpen madness," starting pitcher Jose Mercedes and relievers B.J. Ryan and Calvin Maduro were undone, 4-3, by a powerful Indians lineup that tied the game by homering on back-to-back pitches, then won by refusing to swing.

All three pitchers contributed to a four-walk seventh inning that culminated in Maduro walking Indians right fielder Juan Gonzalez on four pitches with two outs and the bases loaded.

Maduro's sequence of curveball, change-up, slider and fastball forced home pinch runner Jolbert Cabrera and made a losing pitcher of Mercedes.

The Orioles' late-inning collapse was compounded by an offense that vanished after a three-run third inning. Four Indians pitchers held the Orioles to two hits in the final six innings while preventing any runner from reaching third base.

The Orioles have split the season's first four games despite a scratchy attack that has scored just seven runs with a .150 team average and no home runs in 120 at-bats.

Still waiting on the middle of their lineup, the team has received a combined two hits from last night's Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters - DeShields, David Segui and Jeff Conine.

"Part of our offense is pushing the envelope when we have runners on the bases. Obviously, you've got to have base runners to be able to do that," said manager Mike Hargrove.

"There's a certain period of settling in. The Indians had five hits. There's a certain period of adjustment. If you look at their track records, they're not hitting where they should be. Certainly, they're not ping hitters. If we're still hitting like this a month from now, we'll answer that question."

The Indians' first fog delay in 15 years coincided with the Orioles' first bullpen fumble of the season. What followed stirred memories of last season, when the team's promising start was sabotaged by a bullpen that blew four saves in the first 10 games.

This time, there was no blown save, just a blown 3-0 lead.

Back-to-back home runs by Gonzalez and Jim Thome tied the game shortly after the fog delayed the start of the sixth inning.

The Orioles manufactured their biggest lead of the short season with a three-run third against Indians starter Dave Burba.

For the first time, they strung together several consecutive hits, beginning with Jerry Hairston's one-out single. Brady Anderson singled Hairston to third and Mike Bordick singled home Hairston. DeShields then stroked an RBI double before Segui contributed his first RBI on a sacrifice fly to center field.

The offense stopped there as Burba, winning pitcher Ricardo Rincon, Paul Shuey and closer Bob Wickman countered the Orioles' shaky sixth and seventh innings.

For four innings, Mercedes dazzled a fastball-hungry lineup, striking out four while preventing any runner from reaching second base. He often followed a 92-mph fastball with a 78-mph breaking pitch. Just as effective, he doubled up his fastball but varied the speed from 95 to 88.

His effort also extended an odd streak: In each of the Orioles' four games, at least one starting pitcher has cleared four innings with one hit or fewer allowed.

The Orioles lost in baseball's equivalent of water torture as a slow drip of four walks from three pitchers allowed the Indians to take the lead.

Mercedes' leadoff walk to Wil Cordero and a sacrifice by No. 9 hitter Einar Diaz caused Hargrove to call upon Ryan - one of only two available left-handers - who promptly suffered a lapse reminiscent of last season.

Ryan intentionally pitched around pinch hitter Marty Cordova before getting a fly out that brought Roberto Alomar to the plate.

Needing to attack Alomar, Ryan instead lost him to another walk, forcing Hargrove to summon Maduro to face Gonzalez with the bases loaded in his first appearance of the season. Maduro pitched defensively. None of his four pitches tempted Gonzalez. "I tried to pitch him carefully. If I get ahead of him, I get him," Maduro said.

"Guys have come in throughout the year throwing pitches for strikes. He's got a nice curveball. He just didn't have it the first batter," said catcher Brook Fordyce.

"It was tough to see," Mercedes said of his dugout view after leaving the game with one out and one on in the seventh inning. "All kind of things are going through my mind. If I was in there, it might not have happened. But at the same time, if I give up a home run, it's even worse. It's the manager's decision what to do. It's our bullpen. They do what they're supposed to do."

Mercedes showed his first signs of weakness in a troubled fifth inning that had him scramble to escape with one run allowed. Cordero's one-out double into the left-field corner scored Ellis Burks when left fielder DeShields slipped and fell retrieving the ball.

In the sixth, Gonzalez and Thome reached him for home runs that carried a combined 825 feet. Both pitches hung over the plate as Gonzalez cranked a fastball and Thome appeared to sit on a first-pitch change-up.

Something of a staff philosopher, Mercedes put the outing in the context of his first start of the season and declared it fine.

"You can't get people out over and over for nine innings. It happens sometimes, but not every day," said Mercedes.

Orioles today

Opponent: Cleveland Indians

Site: Jacobs Field, Cleveland

Time: 1:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Pat Hentgen (0-0, 1.04) vs. Indians' Bartolo Colon (0-1, 9.00)

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