The Orioles handed out free golf umbrellas before the opener of their three-game series against the Detroit Tigers last night, no doubt unaware that the useful promotional item would turn out to be an appropriate symbol of the club's sudden offensive resurgence.
This isn't golf, but the Orioles clearly have found their stroke. They showered Camden Yards with 15 hits on the way to an 11-3 victory and built on a weeklong run-production binge that belies their current status as one of the worst offensive teams in either league.
It was the second game in a row in which the Orioles scored in double figures and the fourth game in a row in which they had at least 10 hits. Their .240 team batting average still ranks last in the American League, but it has risen 16 points in just the past five games.
"We've got guys in the lineup who can swing the bat," manager Mike Hargrove said after the Orioles scored their most runs of the season. "I still contend that getting no-hit in the second game of the season threw up a huge mental block for us. We're not going to score 10 runs every game, but we've got some guys who can put a swing on the ball and make things happen."
Of course, most of the fun took place on the recent six-game road trip, so this was all new to the relatively sparse crowd of 33,853 that showed up for the first game of the longest homestand of the season (12 games).
The last time anyone showed up here, the club was well into a six-game losing streak and wallowing at or near the bottom of the major leagues in a variety of offensive departments.
First baseman David Segui was the catalyst, driving in three runs with a double and a bases-loaded walk after coming off the disabled list to make his first start since April 22.
"We just came out and swung the bat well collectively," Segui said. "Sometimes you swing the bat great as a team. Sometimes you don't."
Center fielder Melvin Mora matched Segui's three RBIs with run-scoring singles in the fifth and eighth innings.
The fans clearly enjoyed all the action, but the main beneficiary was Orioles starting pitcher Sidney Ponson, who worked five innings and earned his first regular-season victory since last Sept. 22.
"I'm just happy to get the monkey off my back," said Ponson, who gave up six hits and struck out eight. "I can do better I think. It's just a matter of getting my confidence back up."
It has been a long spring for Ponson, who had not registered a victory of any kind since he defeated the Montreal Expos in an exhibition game on March 25 in Jupiter, Fla. Since then, he has been on the wrong end of a no-hitter by Boston Red Sox pitcher Hideo Nomo and on the disabled list with a sore elbow. He returned to the Orioles rotation last Wednesday to pitch four uneventful innings against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Last night, he appeared to be his old self again, at least through the early innings. He struck out four of the first six batters he faced and did not surrender a run until Detroit first baseman Tony Clark lined a bases-loaded double into the right-field corner to drive in three runs in the fifth.
"Sidney threw well," Hargrove said. "His velocity was good, but he lost command of his pitches for that one inning. We were going to let him go 90-100 pitches. He was at 95 so we got him out of there."
Perhaps during a more typical week of Orioles baseball, that fifth-inning reversal might have been the beginning of another unhappy end, but not during the club's sudden offensive renaissance. Ponson (1-3) already had the luxury of a four-run lead, and that wasn't the half of the generous offensive support he would receive before handing a six-run lead over to reliever Chad Paronto in the sixth.
The Orioles scored three times off Tigers starter Dave Mlicki (3-3) in the first inning and might have broken the game open right there if designated hitter Greg Myers had not bounced into a 1-2-3 double play (pitcher to catcher to first base) to water down a bases-loaded threat.
Mike Bordick already had driven in the first run of the game with a single as the first four Orioles batters reached base in the first. Segui would salvage a potential blowout inning with a two-run double into the gap in right-center.
Jerry Hairston padded the lead in the fourth with a run-scoring single before the rangy Clark came up with a chance to wipe it away with one swing in the fifth. He settled for the line-drive double that would hasten Ponson's exit from the game, but the Tigers' budding comeback didn't survive the inning.
The Orioles sent 10 men to the plate in the bottom of the fifth, taking advantage of Mlicki's shaky command and reliever Heath Murray's ineffectiveness to tack on five more runs and turn the game into a laugher.
Mlicki gave up a hit and two walks to load the bases with no one out, then gave way to Murray, who allowed five of the next six batters to reach base by hit or walk.
Myers made amends for his first-inning double play with an RBI single to right and Murray walked Segui to force in a run before Mora delivered the big blow of the inning - a two-run single to left. Hairston stretched the lead to six with his second run-scoring single of the evening.
Single runs in the seventh and eighth innings closed out the scoring.
In all, the Orioles had a season-high 26 base runners, including nine walks and a hit batsman. Hargrove credited the club's patient approach at the plate for the weeklong hit parade.
"The good-hitting teams hit deep in the count," Hargrove said. "Logic states that the more pitches you see, the better chance you have of hitting the ball hard. We've been a little more patient the last three to five days."
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Tigers' Jeff Weaver (3-4, 3.72) vs. Orioles' Pat Hentgen (1-3, 3.58)