Lacking punch, Orioles KO'd

Good-pitch, no-hit team falls to .500 as Indians prevail, 4-3

April 09, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Two seemingly mutually exclusive statistics followed the Orioles from Jacobs Field after yesterday's 4-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians. Through six games they rank second in the American League with a 2.23 ERA but find themselves a .500 team.

They have pitched well enough to be 6-0 and hit poorly enough to be 0-6.

Yesterday, their biggest inning of the season and another sterling performance by a starting pitcher weren't enough to compensate for eight other innings in which they managed one hit, three walks and only one runner on second base.

First baseman Jeff Conine's three-run, first-inning homer ended the team's season-long drought of 161 at-bats without a home run but didn't signal a breakout.

In his major-league debut, hulking Indians rookie left-hander C. C. Sabathia opened the game by feeding the Orioles 28 straight fastballs during a 33-pitch first inning. He left it trailing 3-0. But the Orioles then reverted to a punchless look, their hitters going 1-for-26 after Conine's home run.

"We're not hitting. We're not hitting collectively," said yesterday's designated hitter, Delino DeShields, whose average fell to .111 with an 0-for-3 day. "We're not going to hit a lot of home runs, but we're a better-hitting team than we're showing here early."

A solid debut by fifth starter Chuck McElroy was negated by his team's inability to press the early lead. Bases-empty home runs by Ellis Burks and Russell Branyan pulled the Indians within 3-2. Indians cleanup hitter Juan Gonzalez finally turned the game in the seventh inning with a two-run, two-out single off reliever Willis Roberts.

The Orioles (3-3) are batting .165 with 14 runs in six games. They've been no-hit and in two other games shut out after the third inning. Despite incredible pitching, they have been outscored.

"It's baseball. When you're getting pitching, you're not hitting. And there are times you get hitting and not pitching," said catcher Brook Fordyce. "I believe we'll put them together. You just get through it until you do. We're doing a lot of things right."

The Orioles' glass-half-full argument points to starting pitching that has compiled a 2.47 ERA in 43 2/3 innings. The half-empty case says they're the league's only winless rotation.

"We're going to hit. I just hope the staff doesn't start thinking they have to do it all. They just have to go out and do their best, basically," DeShields said.

The first week has contrasted a feel-good camp in which the Orioles punished the ball for a .286 average and a .429 slugging percentage. Only two starters hit below .270.

"That's one of my worst fears: to do really well in spring training then come out in April asking, `Where did it go?' You can't keep saying, `It's early,' forever, but it is early," said DeShields. "We just have to keep battling."

"There's no pressure" in spring training, Conine said. "You're just sitting there having a good time. Now it counts. It's a different kind of concentration you have to have."

The Orioles were instructed in a grinder's mentality this spring. With a new-look roster that includes only one 100-RBI season from any member since 1996, they know they must scratch for single runs rather than wait for breakout innings. However, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift suggested to hitting coach Terry Crowley this weekend that too many hitters are trying to hit the ball too far.

"In spring training, everybody's relaxed. But it's like when the bell rings, you want to do even better. You can't try any harder. I think a lot of guys are trying too hard," Conine said.

There is no situation in which the Orioles are hitting well. Not against left-handers or against right-handers. Not with the bases empty or with men in scoring position. Hargrove has already tried significant changes, dropping cleanup hitter and first baseman David Segui (.111) from yesterday's starting lineup while giving Mike Kinkade his first action of the season as No. 5 hitter.

Among players with more than four at-bats, only Mike Bordick (.304) and Jerry Hairston (.278) are hitting above .200. Even with Bordick's team-high average, the first four hitters in Hargrove's Opening Day lineup are batting a combined .169 with six runs scored.

Segui and third baseman Cal Ripken have yet to shake the rust from their abbreviated spring schedules. Limited by a hamstring pull, Segui admits he is groping. Ripken, who appeared in only eight exhibition games due to a cracked rib, broke out a new, more flexed stance yesterday.

Ripken and Segui "are just two spots in the lineup. We don't have anybody swinging a hot bat right now," Hargrove said. "We just need to be patient and let it come. We're only six games into the season."

Clearly, the series did not sit well with Hargrove, irritated by questions regarding the team's "surprising" pitching and those regarding its slow-starting bats.

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