PHILADELPHIA - Their bullpen overheated, their starting pitcher still searching for his second win and their leadoff hitter needing to get well, the Orioles faced one of the most challenging moments of their season yesterday against the Philadelphia Phillies. A late-night phone call had been made for reinforcements from Rochester and manager Mike Hargrove might have offered a few morning prayers for at least a seven-inning start from star-crossed Jose Mercedes.
Prayers answered, 10-7.
The Orioles stepped back from a long fall with a grinding seven-inning performance from Mercedes; four home runs, including a three-run shot by flu-ridden Brady Anderson; and a two-inning finish by Buddy Groom in the left-hander's fourth appearance in five days.
Groom, who prevented a 9-3 lead from vanishing in the eighth inning, described the win as a show of "class and character" by an exhausted team.
The NL East-leading Phillies had pummeled the Orioles for 29 runs, 33 hits, seven home runs and 12 doubles in the first two games, including a second loss that stretched into yesterday morning.
Starting pitchers Willis Roberts and Jason Johnson allowed 12 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings. Johnson's outing Saturday was twice delayed by rain, adding to a sense of bad karma. The bullpen had absorbed 20 2/3 innings in the past five games.
"I had two relievers with their arm hanging come up to me and say they could throw because they knew everyone else was hanging. They said they could pick up the slack. I appreciate the effort; I appreciate the comment; I appreciate the intention," Hargrove said.
Reached while the Orioles were being crushed, 14-6, Saturday night, Calvin Maduro arrived from Rochester less than 20 minutes before yesterday's first pitch and immediately became Hargrove's emergency outlet should Mercedes stumble.
Instead, Mercedes gave seven solid innings while four home runs carried an offense that scored 23 runs and crushed nine home runs in three games yet settled for one win.
"They kicked our butts the first two games. We didn't beat ourselves. We just got beat," second baseman Jerry Hairston said. "What's impressive is we did what it took to come back today and get a win. Everyone came up big, especially Jose and Buddy."
"It's huge for them. It's huge for everybody. We lost the whole bullpen the first two days so we don't have a lot of people who could pitch today," Mercedes said. "The way [the Phillies] played the first two days, they looked unbeatable."
The crisis' genesis occurred Wednesday when the bullpen blew a 6-0 lead in what became a 7-6 loss to the New York Mets. Hargrove then mixed-and-matched his way through a 5-2 win the next day, leaving his team thin as it began play without the designated hitter and without a rested bullpen. Consecutive starts of fewer than five innings further torched Hargrove's relievers.
Unable to get out of the third inning against the Mets on Tuesday, Mercedes accepted a suggestion from pitching coach Mark Wiley to simplify his motion in an attempt to find a more over-the-top delivery. Results were so obvious and immediate that Mercedes carried a new confidence despite having won only one of 13 previous starts.
Told by Wiley to extend as if handing the ball to his catcher, Mercedes needed only one pitch in his side session to discover a difference.
"When I changed my delivery, I felt much more comfortable," he said.
Given a 5-0 lead on early home runs by third baseman Jeff Conine and right fielder Brady Anderson, who had missed the series' first two games with flu-like symptoms, Mercedes did not become the third Orioles starter in as many days to squander good fortune. He surrendered a two-run homer to Phillies second baseman Marlon Anderson in the second inning but never saw the tying run reach the plate afterward.
"That's the best command he's had all year. He threw the ball very well. A couple times he could have lost his concentration and focus and didn't," Hargrove said. "He came back and got big outs and made big pitches when he had to. Other than that, he was under control the whole way."
Mercedes (2-8) needed 129 pitches to push through seven innings. He hadn't thrown more than 117 pitches in any previous outing and felt almost spent during the sixth when the Phillies pressed him with a leadoff walk followed by a single. A double-play grounder allowed him to scrape by with one run and an 8-3 lead.
"I was a little tired," he admitted. "I think that's the first time I had ever thrown 129 pitches in a game. ... In the sixth inning I was a little tired. I was wondering what was going on. I was questioning whether I could go seven innings."
He only asked the question of himself. Knowing the bullpen's predicament, he didn't wait long for an answer.
"We would have loved to have taken him one more but he was out of gas," Hargrove said. "For those seven innings he gave us the effort that we needed. Then it got a little scary."