O's drive off Rays in 9th on Matthews HR

Tampa Bay's 3rd error opens door to 4-run close in Orioles' 7-4 victory

Conine goes 4-for-4 with 2 RBIs

Johnson again impresses with 3 runs in 6 innings as O's shake 7-3 Rays hex

August 21, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The goal of finishing .500 still beckons in the distance for the Orioles, motivating them through these times when the pennant race is a mere rumor and the opponents are each trying to avoid losing 100 games.

When Orioles owner Peter Angelos set .500 as the goal during spring training, he could have never known the Tampa Bay Devil Rays would become such a major stumbling block.

Tampa Bay took a ninth-inning lead against the Orioles last night, only to see the Orioles rally for four runs, capped with Gary Matthews' three-run homer, to pull out a 7-4 victory before 24,647 at Camden Yards.

In the Devil Rays' half of the ninth, Aubrey Huff homered with two outs off Orioles reliever Willis Roberts, and the Devil Rays looked headed for their eighth win against the Orioles in the past 11 meetings.

But after a one-out error, Tampa Bay's third of the game, Jerry Hairston tied it with a sacrifice fly, and Matthews followed with his seventh home run. He turned on a 2-0 pitch from Devil Rays reliever Lee Gardner and sent it over the right-field wall, sending the team into celebration at home plate.

"I don't hit too many of those." Matthews said. "You wouldn't think I'd be the one to end it with a home run."

Hairston wasn't surprised. "I tell you what he's really blossomed here." he said of Matthews. "It's good to see because he has a lot of talent. We needed a win. To win this way is good. Hopefully we can build on it."

The Orioles entered this 11-game homestand against Detroit, Tampa Bay and Toronto hoping to get above .500 by feasting on the teams with three of the four worst records in the American League.

After taking two of three from the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins last week, the Orioles came home with a 58-60 record. Last night's victory lifted them to 60-63 with 39 games remaining.

With a potential strike date looming Aug. 30, the Orioles might be running out of time to reach their goal, but things could get interesting if a new labor agreement is reached.

Unlike the past two seasons, the Orioles plan to finish the season by putting their best players on the field. Teams can expand their rosters to 40 players in September, but the Orioles aren't going to hold widespread tryouts for minor-leaguers this time.

Not when a .500 finish would represent the third-best turnaround in franchise history. Not when they play 18 of their 28 games in September against contending teams - the Anaheim Angels, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

"We still want to win ballgames." said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "Even in a rebuilding process, you want to win games, that's really what the big leagues is all about. You'll see some of our kids come up from Double-A and Triple-A, but we're still going to play to win.

"Two years ago, we threw the kids out there just to see what they could do. And took our lumps. I don't know that you'll see that as much this time."

Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine went 4-for-4 last night with two RBIs in his second four-hit game of the season. He now has an eight-game hitting streak that has seen him hit .424. He missed 45 games on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring, but the Orioles plan to use him as much as possible down the stretch.

"It seems every year like certain teams are your nemesis." Conine said of Tampa Bay. 'They've done this to us a few times so it's nice to come back against them once."

Another player returning to health is Jason Johnson, who held the Devil Rays to three runs on nine hits in six innings. The Devil Rays didn't hit many balls hard in the early innings against Johnson, but they extended Johnson's pitch count, forcing him to throw 30 pitches in the third inning alone.

So even though Johnson was strong early, in his third start back from the disabled list after missing 2 1/2 weeks with right shoulder tendinitis, he was gone after 113 pitches in six innings.

Ben Grieve and Chris Gomez, the Devil Rays' No. 7 and No. 8 hitters, respectively, hit back-to- back homers off the Orioles for the second time in two nights.

Grieve, who is now 12-for-32 against Johnson with two home runs, crushed a 93-mph fastball an estimated 435 feet over the right-field wall. It was the 29th home run at Camden Yards to land on Eutaw Street, and the third this season.

Four pitches later, Gomez hit his home run into the left-field seats, giving Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead.

Since coming off the DL, Johnson is 1-1 with a 2.50 ERA.

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