Rays find way to top O's

Tampa pecks away, drops Mercedes to 0-5 with 7-1 decision

Gibbons hits first homer

14-game winner in '00 avoids bad inning, but not another loss

May 03, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Maybe it will take the All-Star break to bring a fresh perspective to Orioles pitcher Jose Mercedes, or at least a few victories. The first half of this season already has gone stale, and he's only five weeks into it. How much harder will it get?

Mercedes became the third Orioles starter to lose his first five decisions in the past three years, avoiding the blow-up inning that's haunted him this season but unable to reverse a 7-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before 26,615 at Camden Yards.

Jay Gibbons' first major-league home run wasn't enough to bring the Orioles to .500 or rescue Mercedes (0-5), who joined a dubious list of teammates who have stumbled out of spring training. Scott Erickson began the 1999 season 0-5 before rallying for 15 wins. Jason Johnson tied a club record last summer by losing his first eight decisions, made two stops in the minors and managed only one victory.

Which way will Mercedes go?

He's already in the midst of the longest losing streak of his career after leading the Orioles with 14 victories last season. He gave up a cheap run in the first inning last night, with alert base running by Gerald Williams and no fear of the Orioles' outfield arms contributing to a 1-0 lead for the Devil Rays.

Alterations in the infield, with Melvin Mora making his first start at shortstop since last September, contributed to another run off Mercedes in the fourth inning. A run-scoring single by Ben Grieve in the fifth, on a two-strike pitch, increased the Devil Rays' lead to 3-1. Grieve had four hits, the last a three-run homer off Jorge Julio in the ninth.

Returning to the organization as a minor-league free agent, Mercedes supplied perhaps the brightest story for the Orioles last season by winning 11 games in the second half. He's become one of their most disturbing this year. Eligible for free agency this fall, his timing couldn't be worse.

Mercedes was pulled in the seventh inning after 89 pitches. He was charged with a fourth run when Grieve singled off left-hander B.J. Ryan. Mercedes allowed 10 hits, equaling the most he's given up this season.

He left the clubhouse without speaking to reporters, but manager Mike Hargrove drew some positive elements from the latest defeat. Mercedes relied more on his fastball, as instructed by Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley. He stuck to the game plan and battled. He just didn't win.

"We all need to step back and look at this start as opposed to the other starts. He only gave up four runs. If we catch a break or put the ball in play a little harder, it could have been an entirely different outcome," Hargrove said.

"I don't think it's a bad outing for Jose. I don't think it's a fantastic outing, but it's not one where you step back and say, `There's something wrong here.' "

Mercedes has been bitten by one bad inning, most recently in Friday's start in Minnesota when he allowed five runs in the first. Last night, the Devil Rays did some nibbling in the first. The damage was only one run, but it hurt.

Williams advanced on two fly balls after reaching on an infield hit, the last in shallow left with one out. Williams, who earlier had tested Chris Richard's arm in center while moving to second, tagged and easily beat the throw from Delino DeShields.

Mercedes became the first Orioles pitcher this season to start a game without Mike Bordick behind him. Bordick was given his first night off, with Mora moving from center field to short.

Mora played in 53 games at shortstop with the Orioles last season after joining them in a trade with the New York Mets, but had done nothing more than take ground balls this year until last night. His inability to field one toward the middle and begin a double play in the fourth inning led to Tampa Bay's go-ahead run.

Greg Vaughn singled with one out and reached second when a grounder from Steve Cox kicked off Mora's glove a few steps from the bag. Jerry Hairston, backing up on the play, bare-handed the ball and threw out Cox after attempting to get the force.

The extra out proved costly when Vinny Castilla, in a 1-for-12 slump and sporting an average below .200, singled into right field to score Vaughn.

Hargrove informed Bordick of the lineup change on Tuesday. "He wasn't real happy. He asked why and I said, `Because I want to.' It's good to have a guy like that instead of someone who says, `OK' and has a smile on their face."

Said Bordick: "Off days are going to happen, but I've never really liked them," he said. "I enjoy being out there. I want to play every day."

That pattern is beginning to develop for Gibbons, the Rule 5 pick who must stay with the club all season or be offered back to Toronto. Last night was his 16th start, most as designated hitter.

Leading off the third, Gibbons pulled an 0-1 pitch from Ryan Rupe down the right-field line. The ball crashed into the back row of seats beside the flag court, and first base umpire Al Clark ruled it foul as Gibbons rounded the bag.

First base coach Eddie Murray and Gibbons, who began yelling "No, no," argued that the ball had sneaked inside the pole, and soon were joined by Hargrove. Plate umpire Rick Reed reversed the call after consulting with Clark.

"I saw the ball go fair, saw the umpire say it was foul and almost had a heart attack," Gibbons said.

Last night's game included another first for the Orioles - the major-league debut of pitcher Josh Towers, who made four starts at Triple-A Rochester before being recalled on Saturday to replace Segui. Towers got the final out in the seventh to strand two runners. He allowed a leadoff single in the eighth before retiring the side.

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