O's get shot in arm in 5-4 win

W. Roberts provides four shutout innings of relief, beats Boston

Thrift: `Tom Seaver stuff'

Young pitcher gets first big-league win

O's score 4 in first

April 12, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - To trace last night's 5-4 escape against the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles can look back almost five months to the Dominican Winter League and the recommendation of Estrellas manager Joe Ferguson and Dominican scouting coordinator Carlos Bernhardt.

A minor-league, free-agent pitcher named Willis Roberts was towering over advanced competition, moving the Orioles to sign him.

Last night, the organization celebrated.

Roberts, 25, made his fifth major-league appearance before 26,302 at Fenway Park who had never heard his name. When he left, Roberts had energized his clubhouse, silenced the swing-happy Red Sox and moved vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift to describe his performance as "Tom Seaver stuff."

A Red Sox lineup full of left-handed hitters swung itself into a frenzy against Roberts, yet came away with nothing. They now realize better than most why the Dominican has 12 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings this season.

"We knew he had a great arm, but seeing him handle these situations tonight was extra special," said Thrift, plopped in a clubhouse chair to savor an organizational win. "What we saw down there was a pitcher who kept getting better with the competition. He has never pitched badly ... He has never pitched badly."

Ferguson, manager of the Orioles' Class A affiliate in Delmarva, raved about Roberts' combination of command and power. Bernhardt saw the same thing.

Called upon in the fifth inning behind wilting starting pitcher Jason Johnson, Roberts struck out seven against two walks and two hits. Three times he saved the Orioles from what appeared to be imminent disaster.

The win wasn't secure until Ryan Kohlmeier and emergency closer Buddy Groom got through a scary ninth inning in which right fielder Brady Anderson played a one-out line drive into an RBI double. Groom followed Kohlmeier with two outs and the bases loaded to get the left-handed-hitting Troy O'Leary to roll over his first pitch for a groundout.

The win was Roberts' first in the major leagues and evened the Orioles' record at 4-4 despite a .186 average and another middle-inning offensive brownout. Anderson's double in the top of the ninth provided the cushion for his defensive lapse in the bottom of the inning.

"I pitch the same way in the major leagues that I pitch in Double-A, Single-A or Triple-A," Roberts said. "I do the same things."

Last night's performance was arguably light years better, reflecting the mechanical changes Roberts has adopted since signing a minor-league contract with the club last November. He struck out two in each of three innings and coaxed a pivotal double play in the other.

"He's comfortable using all his pitches, not just his fastball," said catcher Brook Fordyce, referring to Roberts' two-seam, four-seam, and split-finger fastball, plus a slider. "He enjoys it, which makes it fun to work with him. That was an impressive performance against a good lineup."

The Orioles still don't know whether to project Roberts as a starter or closer. For now, Chuck McElroy holds down the fifth starter's role, and Kohlmeier appears secure as closer. But last night allowed the Orioles to ponder the possibilities.

"Which is worth more, a starter or a closer? That question has been asked a long time in this game," said Thrift. "You have to ask yourself whether he could do that every night or stretch out like Pedro Martinez. Either way, you'd have something."

The stars appeared aligned perfectly for a Johnson win. The Orioles produced a four-run breakout in the first inning against soft-tossing Red Sox starter Frank Castillo; Johnson enjoyed solid career success against the Red Sox; and manager Mike Hargrove's lineup shift seemed the perfect jolt for a team that entered with a .170 batting average and .243 slugging percentage.

But the promising Johnson of the Grapefruit League and last week reverted, extending a freakish run of winless starts by the rotation to eight games and a personal streak to 15.

Johnson benefited from two double plays in four-plus innings but still couldn't carry a lead the minimum five innings to qualify for a decision. After walking only three in six exhibition starts and one in his April 5 start against the Red Sox, Johnson walked three last night.

"I pitched well in the first inning and tried to pitch better in the second," said Johnson, who was 1-10 last season. "I forgot to stay back and let my pitches work."

"He tried to be too nasty," said Hargrove. "He doesn't have to be."

Delino DeShields batted leadoff, Chris Richard played center field while batting third, and Jeff Conine batted cleanup. Jay Gibbons was given his first start at first base. The Orioles had managed seven hits in their previous 17 innings but pounded Castillo for four hits in the first inning.

Richard doubled home DeShields, Conine singled home Richard, David Segui pulled a double to score Conine, and Cal Ripken interrupted a 1-for-19 skid with a double to score Segui.

The Orioles preserved a 4-3 lead by escaping the fourth, fifth and sixth innings in hair-raising fashion. The first occurred because of Richard's fielding mistake that became a double play.

Johnson wobbled to start the fourth inning by allowing three straight line-drive singles. Because the first single was by sore-legged designated hitter Manny Ramirez, the hits created a bases-loaded situation. Rookie third baseman Shea Hillenbrand popped up for the first out. Brian Daubach sent a fly ball to deep center field. Ramirez scored without challenge; but when Richard incorrectly threw toward third base, catcher Jason Varitek broke to second attempting to put the go-ahead run into scoring position. Shortstop Mike Bordick cut Richard's relay and threw out Varitek barely after Ramirez had crossed the plate.

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