Rays put Stephens down, under

Oriole gives up 10 hits, 9 runs in three innings in 10-3 debut defeat

July 31, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Australia native John Stephens made his major-league debut for the Orioles last night, and by the time he was finished, he had the whole team feeling down under.

After traveling halfway around the world, his parents had seats right behind the Orioles dugout. All together, he had about 50 friends and family members waiting to cheer his every move.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays didn't give them much chance.

Stephens allowed nine runs in three innings - six in the first inning alone - and the Devil Rays cruised to a 10-3 victory at Tropicana Field.

"We went with him as long as we felt like we could," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "With a young kid, you don't want to take him out of the game with a bad taste in his mouth."

The entire season series with the Devil Rays has been like the taste of orange juice after toothpaste for the Orioles. Tampa Bay is 8-5 against the Orioles, and 27-65 against everyone else.

In the first two games of this four-game series, the Orioles have been outscored 16-4. This loss - their seventh in eight games - dropped them seven games under .500, matching their season-worst.

The Orioles had hoped Stephens might be able to provide a spark, the way fellow rookies Rodrigo Lopez and Travis Driskill had upon entering the starting rotation. But those two pitchers are 26 and 30, respectively. Stephens is 22.

"I was nervous down in the bullpen," Stephens said. "It was definitely a command thing. I was falling behind guys, and that's when the trouble started."

Stephens has been dominant for Triple-A Rochester, going 11-5 with a 3.03 ERA, despite having a fastball that averages about 82 mph.

Tampa Bay treated him like a batting practice pitcher.

Jason Conti led off the first inning with a double and Brent Abernathy followed with a bunt single, narrowly avoiding a tag by Orioles first baseman Jose Leon.

With a below-average fastball, Stephens relies on precision control. He was second in the International League with 118 strikeouts and had just 23 walks. But his control escaped him this time. After Conti and Abernathy reached base, Stephens fell behind the next three hitters 3-0.

"I think he was just nervous," said Rick Bauer, a rookie who shined in relief of Stephens, allowing one run in four innings. "I could tell because I've been with him for three different seasons, and he was rushing bad. He's a good pitcher, and it's just one game. He'll be just fine."

Toby Hall's run-scoring single brought home Tampa Bay's first run, but Stephens struck out Ben Grieve for the second out, and it looked like he might escape the inning with his pride intact.

Then Jared Sandberg turned on a 69-mph hanging curve ball, sending it into the left-field seats for his first career grand slam. Carl Crawford, the ninth batter of the inning, hit a run-scoring single, giving the Devil Rays a 6-0 lead.

Tampa Bay has never scored more than six runs in a first inning.

Aubrey Huff hit a home run off Stephens in the second inning, and Grieve added a two-run shot in the third.

Stephens retired the final three batters he faced, but by that point, Hargrove had seen enough. He pulled him after 57 pitches, but he did say Stephens will make at least one more start.

"Hopefully," Stephens said, "it can only get better from here."

"The kid's got the stuff, and he's got the ability," Hargrove said. "It's just a matter of him getting off on the right foot and commanding his pitches."

Stephens' performance overshadowed the continuing woes for the Orioles' offense.

Joe Kennedy (6-8) held the Orioles to five hits last night and turned in his fifth complete game of the season. He retired the first 11 batters he faced, before Gary Matthews singled with two outs in the fourth inning.

Kennedy's five complete games are a Tampa Bay record, and he is tied with Kansas City's Paul Byrd for the American League lead.

Marty Cordova hit his 13th home run to lead off the fifth inning, and Melvin Mora hit his 13th homer, a two-run shot in the sixth inning.

"I've got no beef with our effort tonight," said Hargrove, who lectured his team after Monday night's 6-1 loss. "We played hard tonight. We were out of the game early, and at least we made the Devil Rays nervous. We needed to see that."

Orioles tonight

Opponent:Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site:Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time:7:15

TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (11-3, 3.01) vs. Devil Rays' Luis De Los Santos (0-2, 12.60)

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