Helling, O's roll past Rays, 4-0, to revisit .500

Newcomer's 8 innings, Hairston's 2-run HR help give O's 5th win in past 6

Record even for 1st time since 1-1

Camden-low of 18,017 see club win 2nd series in row, which O's last did in July

April 22, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

It's not as if players walk around the Orioles' clubhouse with little medallions hanging from necklaces featuring the number 500. No one has a tattoo that says, "Just break even, Baby!"

But for a team coming off five consecutive losing seasons, for a team that finished 35 games below .500 two years ago and 28 games below that mark last year, a win like last night's carries extra significance, even in April.

Rick Helling came within one inning of his fifth career shutout, giving bench coach Sam Perlozzo his toughest managerial decision in two days, as the Orioles climbed back to the .500 mark with a 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The Orioles took the lead on Marty Cordova's run-scoring single in the fourth inning and cruised to their fifth victory in six games, evening their record at 9-9.

"In terms of goals, I don't want to talk for Grover," said Perlozzo, who has won both games since manager Mike Hargrove returned to Texas, where his mother is recovering from gallbladder surgery.

"Obviously we'd like to be over .500. I think we want to win as many games as possible, that's all."

If the Orioles needed another reminder of how insignificant that number is to their fans, it was evident at the turnstiles again last night.

The paid attendance of 18,017 was the smallest ever to see a game at Camden Yards, lowering the previous mark of 18,470 set on April 3 against the Cleveland Indians.

Maybe the fans are sick of hearing about it. A year ago during spring training, Orioles owner Peter Angelos said he expected his club to play at least .500. It seemed like a worthy goal in the middle of a rebuilding project, and the Orioles hovered near that mark for most of the season.

They were 18-18 on May 11, and 63-63 on Aug. 23.

But they celebrated that last milestone with a 4-32 collapse, the major leagues' worst 36-game finish since 1900.

"I know you guys [in the media] always talk about .500; we really don't care," said Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston, whose two-run homer off Devil Rays starter Steve Parris (0-2) gave the Orioles their four-run cushion in the sixth inning. "We want to win as many games as we can, as many series as we can."

Maybe the .500 mark will have the opposite effect this time. Maybe it will serve as a springboard, and no doubt Angelos is paying close attention. The Orioles play their first 44 games against teams that failed to reach the postseason last year, and with Hargrove in the final year of his contract, a strong start seems imperative.

That's why it was so troubling when the Orioles were sitting at 2-6 two weeks ago after two tough losses in Tampa Bay. They needed to right the ship and right it fast. They've done so by winning seven of their past 10.

By taking two of three in Cleveland and then taking three of four against Tampa Bay, the Orioles have won two consecutive series. That hasn't happened since July, when the Orioles won back-to-back series in Anaheim and Texas, just before the All-Star break.

"This is a part of our schedule where we need to make some progress, and we need to do it now," Perlozzo said. "Our starters are starting to come around, we're getting a couple key hits when we have to, and our defense is playing a lot better than it was."

All three elements were on display last night. One night after Omar Daal won his first game as an Oriole, Helling did the same.

Helling (1-1) allowed four hits and one walk in eight innings, lowering his ERA from 6.00 to 4.15. The scouting report says Helling is a fly ball pitcher, but the Devil Rays made just four outs through the air against him last night, and he induced three double-play balls.

After the seventh inning, Helling told Perlozzo and pitching coach Mark Wiley he wanted to finish the game, but his pitch count rose to 111 after the eighth. Helling threw 117 pitches in his last start and figured he was good for 130 last night.

"I was kind of working them a little bit," Helling said. "I said, `Give me a batter, and if he gets on, you can take me out.' They said, `No, it's a long season, you've pitched well and it's good enough for tonight.'

"The more you think about it, I'm not going to break anybody's shutout record. In the big scheme of things, it's meaningless. Whoever has the record, I think it's safe."

Buddy Groom pitched a scoreless ninth to end the game, putting the Orioles at .500 for the first time since they were 1-1.

"We haven't set any goals as far as wins or losses," Helling said. "We're playing well. We won this series against a team that played us tough in Tampa. That's a good sign."

Orioles tonight

Opponent:Chicago White Sox

Site:Camden Yards


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

Starters:White Sox's Esteban Loaiza (3-0, 1.31) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (1-1, 6.06)

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