Zito, A's silence O's bats again, 5-2

Chavez homer repeats script as punchless O's lose 10th in past 11

September 05, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - Barry Zito and Eric Chavez made it to Network Associates Coliseum last night. The Orioles' offense didn't. The rest is details.

Playing a familiar script to perfection, the Oakland Athletics beat the collapsing Orioles and starting pitcher Jason Johnson, 5-2. The loss was the Orioles' 10th in 11 games, dropped them 28 games below .500 for the first time this season and extended a sense of helplessness on offense that now forces an inexperienced team to pitch and play defense perfectly to win.

Left-hander Zito (12-8) beat the Orioles and Johnson for the second time in six days. He left the game after six innings having retired eight consecutive hitters and not having allowed a base hit since the third inning.

Johnson gave an impersonation of a tiring pitcher who has gone past his career high innings pitched. He walked seven in 5 2/3 innings and never appeared comfortable.

Chavez once again crushed the Orioles with one swing, this time a three-run first-inning home run that erased a brief Orioles lead. Of the A's third baseman's 24 home runs, five have come against Orioles pitching in the past week.

Indeed, Chavez has hit more than twice as many home runs against the Orioles in the past week than the Orioles' entire clubhouse has managed (two) in its last 11 games.

Sore-backed designated hitter Cal Ripken offered the game a degree of positive significance when he cranked his 600th career double with one out in the ninth inning and came around to score. Otherwise, the Orioles were buried by an avalanche of negative trends that has seen them score in only nine of their last 97 innings while being outscored 60-15 in their past 11 games. The Orioles are batting .167 during their 1-10 funk.

And for one more day, the Orioles longed for David Segui.

When manager Mike Hargrove's lineup is whole, second-year outfielder Chris Richard bats sixth or seventh. But the Orioles have rarely been whole this season and Richard has batted third, fourth or fifth in 76 games. The fit has been an uncomfortable one.

"At this stage of his career he's not a 3-hole hitter," said Hargrove, adding that Segui's presence "allows you to move Chris to 6 or 7, which is what he is right now. A 6 or 7 is still a good hitter. But it allows you to move a player like Chris to a spot in the lineup that allows him to be more consistently successful. I'm not saying at some point he won't be a 3-hole hitter. But right now he's not."

Richard still poses the same questions as he did this spring as he has yet to become comfortable against left-handed pitching and in run-producing situations. Right now he has no place to hide.

The Seattle Mariners made no attempt during last week's series in Baltimore to hide their preference to pitch to Richard, then walk or pitch around cleanup hitter Jeff Conine, whose 26 RBIs in August may represent one of the game's most staggering feats for the month.

"We're seeing some very good pitching. But more than seeing good pitching, we're missing our No. 2, 3 and 4 hitters - [Mike] Bordick, Albert [Belle] and Segui. That's a lot to overcome," said second baseman Jerry Hairston. "Take away the second, third and fourth hitters out of any lineup and they're going to struggle. Right now we're struggling. That might sound like I'm making excuses. But that's reality."

The Orioles have scored four runs or fewer in 11 consecutive games. Only once during the stretch have they managed more than three runs. They've been shut out four times. Able to muster only 12 hits in a three-game sweep by the Toronto Blue Jays Aug. 24-26, the Orioles followed Monday night's three-hit loss by reaching Zito for only two hits in six innings.

Zito fell behind, 1-0, in the first inning when he hit Hairston with a pitch, picked him off, then watched as first baseman Jason Giambi threw wildly after him. The play was ruled an error, making the run unearned when Conine singled with two outs.

Every day the Orioles struggle, the more they are reminded of Segui's importance to their offensive health. Their switch-hitting first baseman hasn't played since Aug. 23 against Tampa Bay. Coincidentally, the Orioles have barely averaged one run per game in his absence.

With Segui and Conine in the lineup, the Orioles possess some teeth.

With either one unavailable, their offense turns to mush, especially in late innings when opposing managers may freely whipsaw them with their bullpen.

"It balances out a little better," said Hargrove. "You're able to break up your right-handers and have more of a lineup that's tougher for the other manager to make pitching moves against."

For much of the second half, Hargrove has carried a pea shooter into a gunfight. Even with the Orioles clubhouse filled with minor-league promotions, Hargrove could look to only one available position player on his bench, utility player Willie Harris.

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