Oates' slow ball gets crushed


CLEVELAND -- John Oates didn't wait for the question to be asked. The look on his face said it all.

The Orioles manager had been caught with his relief pitcher down, and he knew it.

Last night's 10-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians got out of hand before Mike Flanagan had tossed even one warmup pitch in the bullpen. Out on the real mound, Jeff Ballard was taking a severe pounding.

He faced 14 batters in the first inning and nine of them scored. It was a nightmare when it happened, and it was even worse when Oates reconstructed the inning three hours later.

"You can't let the game get out of hand in the first inning," said Oates, pounding his desk in frustration, "and I know that. I know it, but I let it happen.

"That," Oates said ruefully, "wasn't my best inning of the year."

There was no doubt Oates left Ballard in the game beyond the statute of limitations. He did not get Flanagan up to throw until the score had reached 5-0.

"Flanagan was the guy I wanted to use long," said Oates, "and I know it takes him a little longer to get ready. I managed the first inning hoping Jeff could get out of there before it was five runs.

"You can't manage [by] hoping," said Oates. "They had five runs before I got him up, and it was 9-0 before he was ready. They say you learn something every day -- and I learned something today.

"Even if your bullpen is tired, you can't give up that many runs in the first inning. If it means sending someone out and bringing a fresh

arm in here tomorrow, you do it. Either that or you play the next game short."

Oates was visibly more upset with himself than he was with Ballard, whose performance was baffling because it came on the heels of a solid start last week in Kansas City. "You couldn't tell the difference between his fastball and his changeup," said Oates. "I couldn't make up my mind if the changeup was too hard or the fastball not hard enough, but there didn't appear to be any difference."

What complicated the devastating first inning was the fact that when Sandy Alomar lined to right for the second out the score was still only 2-0. That was the point where Oates was caught with his hopes up and his bullpen down.

Nine batters later, it was Alomar who eventually made the last out of the inning. In between Ballard gave up, in order, a walk, single, walk, single, walk and three more singles.

One might suspect Ballard was being dealt an unusually harsh punishment.

But Oates admitted later that it was merely a case of him waiting too long to pull the trigger. "It was pretty obvious, wasn't it?" he asked.

In a word, the answer is yes. And what made it tougher to swallow is that the Orioles actually made a couple of runs at getting back into the game against Cleveland lefthander Greg Swindell.

After Mike Huff homered off Ballard to lead off the third to make it 10-1, Oates finally got Flanagan into the game. Naturally he pitched five scoreless innings, allowing only two hits in the process.

A two-run homer by Randy Milligan, a double by Leo Gomez and a single by David Segui made it 10-4 in the sixth and Swindell had to leave after giving up a walk and a single to start the seventh.

It was in this spot that Cal Ripken made the questionable decision to bunt for a base hit. The bunt was executed perfectly going past reliever Jeff Shaw, but Bob Melvin didn't get a good jump running from second base and was forced at third.

"I don't have any problem with that," Oates said of his best hitter bunting in that spot. "There are times when you need a base hit and there are times when you need a home run. In that situation I'll take the bases loaded with the fourth, fifth and sixth hitters coming up.

"Melvin just didn't get a good read on the ball and got a bad jump," said Oates, "otherwise it works. I wouldn't have wanted Cal bunting in the eighth inning last night [Tuesday, when Ripken tied the game with a home run], but in this case, with the third baseman playing in leftfield, I had no problem with it."

Replaying the game, though, was a waste of time for Oates. As far as he was concerned, everything revolved around the first inning.

"I can't let that happen," he said with a resolve that indicated it won't. "I should have gotten Flanny up sooner. We don't know if we'd been able to cut it off [the nine-run inning], but you have to try. You can't let it get out of control.

"I kept hoping Jeff could get us out of there with no more than four or five runs.

"But," Oates said, repeating himself for at least the third time, "you can't manage by hoping. I know better than that, but I did it."

Usually a 10-4 loss, even if it snaps a season-high four-game winning streak, isn't very difficult to take. But this one didn't fall into that category. When you give up nine runs in the first inning, and 10 for the game, it gnaws at you.

For the first time since he took over as manager 32 games ago, John Oates was engaging in the practice of second-guessing himself.

It wasn't an enjoyable experience.

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