TORONTO -- Never underestimate the curative power of playing against the Baltimore Orioles.
Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Kelly Gruber has become a believer. He came off the disabled list three days ago, but he was hitless until the Orioles hit town.
His two-run home run in the first inning last night kicked off another early-inning onslaught, and the Blue Jays went on to score a 9-1 victory over the Orioles in the opener of a three-game series at SkyDome.
The first-pitch fastball from Orioles starter Jeff Robinson traveled an estimated 418 feet, not a bad poke for a guy who just spent five weeks disabled with a sprained ligament and a chip fracture at the base of his right thumb.
Gruber, who also had two singles, isn't the first injured player to add insult to the Orioles this week. Kansas City Royals outfielder Danny Tartabull hit three home runs and had eight RBI in the two games after he returned to the lineup from a sprained wrist.
First baseman John Olerud got well last night, too, though all he was suffering from was an anemic batting average (.203) before he turned in a three-hit performance that included a home run and a career-high four RBI.
"Nothing like a three-hit game to give you a positive attitude and get your confidence back," said Olerud, who can usually depend on the Orioles. He has a .375 lifetime average against them.
Gruber's three-hit performance raised his career average against Baltimore to .337. The home run was his 11th against the Orioles in 178 at-bats.
The Blue Jays had scored just three runs in three games against the Cleveland Indians earlier this week, but they scored three times in the first inning and had built a seven-run lead for right-handed starter Todd Stottlemyre by the fourth.
He could have sent the Orioles to their sixth straight loss with a lot less help.
Gruber's home run was the first of three homers off Robinson in the first three innings. Right fielder Mark Whiten also went first-ball fishing and drove a ball into the second deck in right field in the second inning. Olerud drove in two more with a 416-foot shot to right in the third.
Robinson (3-6) took his lumps, giving up seven runs on five hits and six walks over three-plus innings. Manager John Oates could ill-afford another quick hook, but he had little choice but to go to the bullpen after Robinson had walked the leadoff batter in the fourth. Orioles starters have averaged less than four innings in the past four games.
"He just couldn't make any pitches," Oates said. "He didn't have much of a fastball, and his forkball was out of the strike zone. You walk six guys in three innings, somebody's going to score."
Robinson (3-6) had pitched well in his previous start, but he has had trouble putting two solid performances back to back. He has been particularly vulnerable on the road, where he is 0-4 with an 11.34 ERA.
"I was horrible," he said. "I don't make excuses. The only thing that counts is what ends up on the scoreboard. I didn't do what I needed to do."
Even a six-man bullpen can get overextended working five innings per game, but Orioles relievers continue to make the best of a bad situation. Mike Flanagan took the brunt of last night's bailout, working four scoreless innings to drop his ERA to 2.85.
The Orioles had come back from a seven-run deficit on Wednesday night, only to lose on a 10th-inning home run. They came back from four runs down on Thursday night, and lost on a two-run homer in the ninth. But there would be no gutty display of character on this night.
Stottlemyre has never had much trouble with the Orioles. He came into the game with a 3-0 lifetime record and a 1.36 ERA. The last time he faced Baltimore -- on Sunday at Memorial Stadium -- he gave up just three hits over seven innings.
This time, he retired the first eight batters he faced and went on to give up eight hits over eight innings on the way to his seventh victory in nine 1990 decisions.
The Orioles got on the scoreboard with three straight two-out singles in the sixth. Randy Milligan drove in the run with a sharp bouncer though the middle, but it was far too little and far too late to keep his team from sinking deeper into the American League East cellar.
The Blue Jays have won three straight games and seven of their past 11 to tighten their grip on the division lead. The Orioles fell for the ninth time in their past 11 to drop a season-high 12 1/2 games off the pace.
Things could get worse before they get better. The club announced before last night's game that right fielder Dwight Evans had been placed on the 15-day disabled list with an inflamed Achilles' tendon.
Evans has been one of the few players to swing a consistent bat this year, ranking third on the club with 23 RBI. He was replaced on the roster by outfielder Brady Anderson, who started his first game since May 27 and had two hits.
Orioles-Blue Jays scoring
Blue Jays first: White grounded out to shortstop C.Ripken. Alomar walked. Gruber homered to left center on 0-0 count, Alomar and Gruber scored. Carter struck out. Mulliniks walked. Olerud doubled to left center, Mulliniks scored. Myers grounded out to first baseman Milligan. 3 runs, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Blue Jays 3, Orioles 0.
Blue Jays second: Whiten homered to right on 0-0 count. Lee struck out. White struck out. Alomar walked. Gruber flied out to left fielder Anderson. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 1 left on. Blue Jays 4, Orioles 0 .
Blue Jays third: Carter popped out to shortstop C.Ripken. Mulliniks walked. Olerud homered to right on 2-1 count, Mulliniks and Olerud scored. Myers singled to center. On Robinson's wild pitch, Myers to second. Whiten walked. Lee struck out. White struck out. 2 runs, 2 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Blue Jays 6, Orioles 0.
Blue Jays fourth: Alomar walked. Flanagan relieved Robinson. Gruber singled to center, Alomar to third. Carter grounded into double play, shortstop C.Ripken to first baseman Milligan, Alomar scored, Gruber out. Mulliniks grounded out to shortstop C.Ripken. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Blue Jays 7, Orioles 0 .
Orioles sixth: Orsulak grounded out to shortstop Lee. C.Ripken grounded out to shortstop Lee. Horn singled to right. Gomez singled to left, Horn to second. Milligan singled to center, Horn scored, Gomez to second. Whitt grounded out, second baseman Alomar to pitcher Stottlemyre. 1 run, 3 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Blue Jays 7, Orioles 1.
Blue Jays eighth: Hickey pitching. Alomar doubled down the left-field line. Gruber singled to center, Alomar to third. Carter hit sacrifice fly to right fielder Orsulak, Alomar scored. Tabler, pinch hitting for Mulliniks, grounded into fielder's choice, shortstop C.Ripken to second baseman Hulett, Gruber forced at second. Olerud tripled to right center, Tabler scored. Myers grounded out to second baseman Hulett. 2 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Blue Jays 9, Orioles 1.