Sparks, Tigers slowly top O's

Orioles kept off balance by knuckleball in 2-1 loss

`We couldn't get anything going'

Stephens pitches well

O's drop 2 of 3 in Detroit

August 12, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - They could have turned off the radar gun at Comerica Park yesterday and replaced it with an hourglass. Orioles pitcher John Stephens and Detroit Tigers counterpart Steve Sparks were tossing pitches that wouldn't have been ticketed for speeding on Interstate 75.

Of course, this did little to help the run production for two teams that seemed to take an offensive hiatus all weekend.

Sparks used his knuckleball to tie the Orioles in knots, and Stephens used his 60-something-mph curveball to keep things close, but the Tigers scored two early runs and held on for a 2-1 victory.

The Orioles dropped two of three games against a last-place Detroit team that has scored the fewest runs in baseball this season, at 442. For the series, the Tigers outscored the Orioles 7-4.

This came after the Orioles had pounded out 19 runs in a three-game sweep of the first-place Minnesota Twins.

"They threw well, and sometimes you're going to run into that," Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston said of Detroit's pitchers. "We hit some balls at people. We couldn't really get anything going. With a knuckleballer, it's one of those things where they're either on or they're not. It's never average, and [Sparks] threw well."

Sparks (7-11) held the Orioles to two hits over the first seven innings. After scoring three runs in the eighth inning Saturday to pull out a 3-2 victory, the Orioles looked like they might repeat the performance.

Luis Lopez opened the eighth inning with a pinch-hit single to right field, just as he did Saturday, and Hairston followed with his second double of the game. Lopez raced home on center fielder Wendell Magee's throwing error.

Tigers manager Luis Pujols went to his bullpen, giving the Orioles a completely different look with hard-throwing right-hander Oscar Henriquez. Throwing pitches about 30-mph faster than Sparks, Henriquez got Melvin Mora to fly to shallow center for the first out.

Hairston advanced to third on a wild pitch, giving Chris Singleton a golden opportunity to tie the game. But after throwing a 97-mph fastball, Henriquez got Singleton to chase a 79-mph curve for strike three.

Henriquez walked Gary Matthews and Jay Gibbons, bringing Marty Cordova to the plate with the bases loaded. In that at-bat, Henriquez threw three curveballs, and Cordova lined out to left field.

"Marty hit the ball good," Hairston said. "If he hits that ball in the gap, it's a bases-clearing double."

Henriquez has made 15 consecutive scoreless appearances, and his ERA at Comerica is 0.96. Tigers closer Juan Acevedo, who pitched the ninth for his 22nd save, has a 0.72 ERA at home.

The Orioles missed the chance to get Stephens his first major-league win. Stephens (0-2) allowed two runs on seven hits in seven innings in what was the best of his three starts.

Once again, he had a rough first couple innings and then settled down. The Tigers took an early lead on Damian Jackson's run-scoring single in the first inning and George Lombard's run-scoring single in the second.

After Lombard's hit, Stephens retired 16 of the next 18 batters. He didn't walk a batter and had six strikeouts.

"It was good for my confidence, for sure," said Stephens, who lowered his ERA from 13.00 to 8.44. "I felt relaxed out there and got everything over."

Stephens' fastball reached 86 at one point, which looked like a lightning bolt compared to his usual 82-mph variety.

"John threw the ball well enough to win today," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "Of his three outings, today was by far the best. He changed speeds well, he threw his fastball in a lot better and commanded it a lot better."

The Orioles tried looking at this series as an aberration. In Friday night's 3-0 loss, they faced rookie left-hander Mike Maroth in the best game of his young career. On Saturday, they came back to win after struggling for seven innings against former minor-league free agent Brian Powell.

And yesterday, they faced the always unpredictable Sparks, who has thrown one complete-game two-hitter this season and has had seven starts in which he has given up five or more runs.

"You take what you can get," Hargrove said. "It was obvious Sparks was throwing the ball well today."

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