Benson completes mission vs. Nats

Opener to rivalry isn't `electric' but O's starter is

Orioles 5 Nationals 1

Friday night's game

May 21, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

Washington -- One of the only early signs that this was anything other than the start of a three-game series between two struggling baseball teams came during the national anthem when Orioles fans at RFK Stadium yelled their traditional "OOOOO" and Washington Nationals fans responded with boos.

The game generated very little buzz otherwise, so that exchange amounted to fighting words. The first regular-season game between the two cities since 1971 was treated as just another early-season game to the participants and so too for the fans.

About 5,000 more fans than the Nationals average this season passed through the turnstiles Friday night to witness the Orioles take Game 1 of the weekend series, 5-1, before 30,320.

"[The atmosphere] wasn't electric, but it was OK," said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, suppressing a smile.

It was the sizable chunk of orange-and-black-clad fans that settled into this rickety stadium that had something to cheer. Kris Benson pitched a five-hit complete game, his first since September 2004. It was also the first complete game for the Orioles (20-22) since Sidney Ponson tossed one last April.

Benson's shutout bid was broken up in the eighth on Alfonso Soriano's 14th home run. He is now 5-1 in his past six starts and has given up just nine hits and two runs in his past two outings, spanning 16 innings.

"I had some great defensive plays behind me," said Benson, who was 0-2 with an 8.53 ERA in four starts against the Nationals last season as a member of the New York Mets. "I made some pitches when I needed to make some pitches. All around, it was a good game to start the series. It was a lot of fun."

The series, which represented the renewal of the Washington-Baltimore baseball rivalry that had been on a 35-year break, had been touted for a while now. The fervor, however, was noticeably absent before the ceremonial first pitch, which was hurled by two fans, one in an Orioles jersey and the other in red Nationals garb.

The Orioles arrived at RFK Stadium around 4 p.m., after an hour bus trip. They dressed in the cramped locker room and took the field where a crowd of print and television reporters awaited. Not everybody understood the fuss about two teams a combined 16 games under .500.

"It's [the media], that's who is creating the rivalry right now," said Orioles left fielder Jeff Conine, who had a double and was one of five Orioles with RBIs. "For us, it's just another game. You need history for a rivalry. You need some kind of past. I don't think it's fair to call it a rivalry the first time you play a team."

Perlozzo agreed, saying, "Right now, it's a little bit of a novelty."

Orioles fans mixed intermittently with Nationals fans in the stands, no bad blood in sight. Heck, even a dancing gentleman who was elected as the Fan of the Game, wore an Orioles cap and a Nationals jacket.

Perhaps, the atmosphere was so tame because Benson (6-3) gave the ballpark's home fans very little to cheer about, until Soriano's long, eighth-inning home run.

"He had good command and good location and we had a bad day," Soriano said. "[Mike] O'Connor pitched a very good game, too, but they played better baseball."

O'Connor, a Mount St. Joseph grad and Howard County resident, shut out the Orioles, his favorite team growing up, through five innings. He slithered out of jams in the second and in the fourth and fifth, shrugging off a hard line drive from Jay Gibbons that he took in the left shoulder in the fourth.

Nationals right fielder Daryle Ward's misplay of a Corey Patterson line drive that turned into an RBI triple was the key hit in the Orioles' two-run sixth and the Orioles tacked on two more in the seventh and another in the eighth.

Despite a solid six-inning outing, O'Connor (2-2) was saddled with the loss, becoming the third straight left-hander the Orioles have beaten. They had lost nine straight to southpaws.

Third baseman Melvin Mora, who signed a contract extension earlier in the day, had three hits, and Patterson, Ed Rogers and Ramon Hernandez had two each. Benson also had an RBI to go along with his strong pitching performance.

"He was getting ahead early in the count and after that he was playing a little chess game," Hernandez said. "He'd throw a lot of off-speed pitches and he was making them chase. When he makes a team do that, it's pretty hard to beat him."

Said Perlozzo: "He was awesome tonight. I thought he was in command the entire way."

Benson got Nationals catcher Wiki Gonzalez on a fly ball to Patterson to end the game.

As the remnants of the original crowd filtered out into a chilly night, a muted "Let's Go Orioles" chant broke out. The first night of what Nationals officials have billed as the "Battle of the Beltway" was officially over.

"I know it's going to be a good rivalry as it goes on," Benson said. "The fans will have a lot of fun with it."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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