Mercedes, O's bounced in rubber match, 8-2

Pitcher loses lead, cool as Red Sox capture finale of 3-game series

April 13, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - As Jose Mercedes exited Fenway Park stage right, the fall from perfection to utter disappointment became too much.

Perfect through three innings, Mercedes trudged from the mound with two outs in last night's fifth inning, his 2-0 lead turned into what would end as an 8-2 Orioles loss to the Boston Red Sox.

In less than a minute, he wordlessly summarized his frustration by making an obscene gesture to some rowdies near the visitors' dugout. He then tossed two coolers from the steps, his night already in a heap.

"There were eight runs on the board. Sometimes your patience goes off for one or two seconds," Mercedes said. "We're all human beings. We go through all kind stuff. Sometimes we feel like jumping to [go] get a guy, but we can't do that. Hopefully, this won't happen again."

But last night showed once more there are no guarantees, not even for a pitcher who won 11 games during last season's second half. Not even for a pitcher who mowed down the first nine hitters he faced on a raw, damp night.

Mercedes couldn't remember the last time he suffered such a tantrum. He would have had to remember almost three years ago to recall suffering more damage than last night's eight earned runs and 10 hits.

"Sometimes you've got to do something," Mercedes (0-2) said. "Normally, I don't do that kind of stuff. Sometimes you do it and don't even know how you do it. When you're doing it, sometimes you can't explain what's going through your mind."

Right now, the Orioles can't explain some of the statistical quirks afflicting them except to remember that they're only nine games (4-5) into a six-month season.

The Orioles have yet to receive a win from a starting pitcher - the only team in the league with that distinction - but last night could not lay the entire blame on a languishing offense.

Hitting a collective .194, they've actually proven dangerous in early innings lately only to lapse into ponderous funks after taking a quick lead. The return home from a 2-4 road trip having scored only four runs after the third inning. Inexperience has so far translated into difficulty making adjustments.

Last night, Mercedes encountered such problems. Perfect for three innings, he was helpless during a six-run fourth that saw the Red Sox score four runs with two outs. The breakout coincided with his going through the Red Sox order a second time.

A visit by pitching coach Mark Wiley after Trot Nixon and Jose Offerman singled to lead off the inning did nothing to steady Mercedes. A bases loaded strikeout of Manny Ramirez preceded Troy O'Leary's two-run single. Right fielder Brady Anderson's running backhanded catch offered Mercedes the opportunity to escape the inning with minimal damage, but the Red Sox followed with three consecutive hits, one harder than the next, to take a 6-2 lead.

Usually able to manage innings by varying speeds, Mercedes tried without success to power his way out of the jam. Pitching from the stretch, his arm angle dropped, leaving his pitches too high.

"He went from keeping the ball down and throwing strikes ... to it being like someone turned the tap off," manager Mike Hargrove said. "Everything came up. His fastball stopped moving; his two-seamer stopped sinking; his curveball stopped curving. If we had an answer for it, we'd have given him a pill or something."

The previous two nights had seen Hargrove's starters go a combined 7 2/3 innings, leaving a six-man bullpen short on long relief. Calvin Maduro warmed but was not a hoped-for solution.

Mercedes' meltdown continued in the fifth inning. With one out, last year's 14-game winner surrendered a single, double and triple that pumped the lead to 8-2. Hargrove visited the mound to speak at length with Mercedes. He allowed him to remain in the game only to watch his irritated pitcher walk Jason Varitek on four pitches, two high and tight.

After retiring the first nine hitters he faced, Mercedes allowed 10 hits and a walk to the next 14. His eight earned runs were the most he'd surrendered since being pounded for 11 on May 4, 1998, the day before the Milwaukee Brewers placed him on the disabled list with a strained rotator cuff.

Hargrove had seen enough and Mercedes had thrown enough, bringing Maduro into the game for the second time in the series. On his way to the Orioles dugout, Mercedes flipped off fans sitting to the outfield side. A entire section erupted in boos as Mercedes climbed into the dugout well and began grappling with two sports drink coolers.

Mercedes flung one, then a second cooler to the end of the dugout while teammates sidestepped out of the way. He then grabbed his jacket and disappeared into the tunnel leading to the clubhouse.

"Usually when somebody starts throwing stuff like that you just get out of the way so you don't get wet and you hope they don't hurt themselves," Hargrove said.

The series revealed the first fraying of the rotation. Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson and Mercedes combined to allow 17 earned runs and 22 hits in 11 2/3 innings.

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