Slow, steady doesn't win game for O's

Baffled by Stephens, Jays prevail with late run, 5-4

Winning streak ends at four

Rookie pitcher hits stride after early-game struggle

August 05, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

TORONTO - Eric Hinske slammed his bat to the turf. Jose Cruz stared at the mound. Vernon Wells had a brief chat with the plate umpire. At a loss for words, Shannon Stewart just shook his head.

Orioles rookie John Stephens had gotten under their skin yesterday - way down under - with the same assortment of off-speed pitches that left minor-league batters frustrated and more than a little curious.

The first phase of yesterday's game satisfied the Orioles. It just didn't extend far enough to cover up a defeat.

Two infield hits in the seventh inning off reliever B.J. Ryan allowed the Toronto Blue Jays to score the tie-breaking run, and Kelvim Escobar held the lead when given a second chance in a 5-4 victory over the Orioles before 17,637.

Coming off a debut in St. Petersburg, Fla., that lasted three innings and cost him nine runs, Stephens recovered nicely from another slow start. He allowed four runs during the first two innings, then blanked Toronto through the sixth. The first Australian to pitch for the Orioles, Stephens watched his ERA spiral backward, going from 27.00 before the game to 13.00.

"That Tampa game, I couldn't forget that fast enough," he said. "It was still with me a little today when I went out there and gave up a couple runs. But those last four innings definitely make me happier."

Stephens didn't get the decision, and the Orioles (52-56) couldn't build their first five-game winning streak. Catcher Tom Wilson led off the seventh inning with a single, and one out later pinch runner Dewayne Wise stole second. Stewart reached on a high bouncer to third, beating the throw from Tony Batista, and Wise scored when second baseman Jerry Hairston had no play on a two-hopper from Hinske.

Escobar recovered from Friday's meltdown, when he surrendered a game-winning, three-run homer to Gary Matthews. Yesterday, he allowed a two-out single to Chris Singleton and walked Matthews, bringing jeers from the crowd, before Batista struck out with the count full.

"Certainly in that [seventh] inning, they got the breaks, but that's part of the game," said manager Mike Hargrove, whose team out-hit the Blue Jays 12-10 but did all its scoring in the third inning off starter Pete Walker.

The Orioles' lineup was missing Jay Gibbons, who couldn't play because of a sore right wrist. Howie Clark took his place, with Chris Richard moving from seventh to fifth in the order.

On an offensive tear since the Orioles activated him Wednesday, Richard went 2-for-4, dropping his average to .526. Richard's single was among four straight to begin the third inning. Cordova drove in the Orioles' first run, Brook Fordyce doubled in two more and a grounder by Hairston tied the game at 4-4.

The Orioles had nine hits after three innings, so run support didn't seem as if it would be an issue. But how many would Stephens need?

He allowed two in the first and two in the second, making him scored upon in all five of his major-league innings. Hinske drilled an RBI double off the left-center-field fence during an at-bat that included 60 and 62 mph curveballs and an 83 mph fastball. The double came after Stephens thought he had Hinske struck out. Cruz later tapped to the mound on a pitch that registered 59 mph.

A two-run single by Stewart, on a grounder that deflected off shortstop Melvin Mora's glove, gave the Blue Jays a 4-0 lead in the second. Pitching coach Mark Wiley visited the mound after Hinske walked, and Stephens retired 12 of the last 14 batters he faced.

"The third inning, just getting that zero relaxed me a whole lot," he said.

Stephens' parents took a flight from Australia to watch his debut Tuesday against the Devil Rays. Their plane didn't travel as far as the three home runs he allowed, but yesterday was different. Toronto had three extra-base hits, all doubles, and Hargrove could see the rookie maturing before his eyes.

After the second inning, "he started keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate. He was throwing strikes, getting ahead of hitters. He started hitting his spots better," Hargrove said.

With Jason Johnson eligible to come off the disabled list Wednesday, Stephens could be headed back to Rochester. "If we do decide to sent him back," Hargrove said, "I think he'll leave with a lot better taste in his mouth than he would if it had gone in the other direction."

Orioles today

Opponent:Toronto Blue Jays

Site:SkyDome, Toronto

Time:1:05 p.m.

TV/Radio:Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (12-3, 2.94) vs. Blue Jays' Steve Parris (4-2, 4.20)

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