SEATTLE - Like his counterpart yesterday, Orioles starter Bruce Chen was once a highly touted pitching prospect, too. In the late 1990s, in the pitching-stocked Atlanta organization, Chen was earmarked as one of the Braves' future aces.
Now, eight organizations and much heartbreak later, Chen is simply trying to hold down a job. His persistence is commendable.
Chen settled down yesterday after a shaky start and gave up no earned runs in six innings, out-dueling Seattle 19-year-old pitching phenom Felix Hernandez in a 6-3 Orioles win over the Mariners in front of 30,212 yesterday at Safeco Field.
The Orioles (67-75) scored five runs in the second inning off Hernandez (3-3), leading to the prized rookie's roughest outing of his career. Hernandez, who hadn't given up more than three earned runs in his six previous major league starts, was charged with all six Orioles runs in seven innings, along with tying a career high by surrendering seven hits.
"We hear a lot of things about this kid, so we said, `OK, let's see what he's got,'" said Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora. "We've faced so many good pitchers, and he's one of them. But when we go on the field, we don't care who is the pitcher."
Mora capped the Orioles' five-run second inning, his single to right field scoring two runs and giving the Orioles a 5-3 lead. David Newhan hit a sacrifice fly for the Orioles' first run, and designated hitter Bernie Castro added a two-run double in the inning, which came after the Mariners had scored three runs in the first.
"[The guys] heard all the hype, too," said Sam Perlozzo, who is now 16-19 since being named interim manager. "There was nothing really said about it, but you can really tell in the dugout that they were going to take the game seriously. To our credit, we laid off some pitches. We didn't swing at everything he threw up there."
Hernandez, who eventually settled down and retired 11 consecutive Orioles at one point until Newhan doubled and scored on Sal Fasano's single in the seventh, walked three batters in the second inning and seemed to become frustrated by plate umpire Bruce Froemming's strike zone.
"The strike zone was a little bit smaller tonight," Hernandez said through an interpreter. "It was just one bad inning. I've got a lot more good innings in me."
The Orioles agreed. Mora called the Mariners pitcher "nasty," and said he pitches like a veteran. Shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was 0-for-4 yesterday, concurred. Perlozzo, who in the minor leagues managed Dwight Gooden, the pitcher to whom Hernandez is most compared, was most impressed by Hernandez's confidence. Several times during the game, the 19-year-old threw a breaking ball or changeup on a 3-2 count.
But through all the praise lavished on the rookie in the visiting clubhouse, the fact remained that on this day, Hernandez was outpitched by Chen, a 28-year-old soft-tossing left-hander who wasn't supposed to make the Orioles' rotation in spring training and certainly wasn't expected to win a career-high 12 games.
"It definitely means a lot to me," said Chen, who now has a 3.60 ERA, the lowest among full-season Orioles starters.
Chen completely shut the Mariners down after they scored three in the first, runs coming on his throwing error trying to get Ichiro Suzuki in a force at home, a bases-loaded walk to Jeremy Reed and a wild pitch.
He left the game after the sixth after striking out Suzuki looking with a man on second. Tim Byrdak and Todd Williams combined to pitch scoreless seventh and eighth innings, and All-Star closer B.J. Ryan struck out the potential tying run, Adrian Beltre, in the ninth, notching his 31st save.
"I felt like I was facing a good team and a good pitcher, and it's great to beat this guy early in his career, rather than when he settles down," Chen said. "He's going to be good, so it's good to know I got a win early rather than facing him when he's 24 or 25."
With their second straight victory in tow, the Orioles headed to Texas for the start of a three-game series with the Rangers. Injured sluggers Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa will stay home and again be away from the team. So will some of the distractions and constant barrage of media questions that go along with them.
"This is honestly as relaxed as the clubhouse has been in about two months with everything that has gone on," said right fielder Jay Gibbons. "Don't get me wrong, we'd love to have those guys around and in our lineup every day, but we'd love to have them there without the questions.
"Unfortunately, when you answer the question once, it's not enough. You get 10 more of them. I don't know if we take that out to the field but it just seems like right now we are playing more loose than we have been."
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site/Time: Arlington, Texas/8:05
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/1090 AM
Starters: Orioles' Daniel Cabrera (9-11, 4.75) vs. Rangers' Edison Volquez (0-2, 17.55)