The Fernando Valenzuela experiment has been an unqualified success, unless you want to get technical about it.
Valenzuela has turned in three straight solid performances, but the Orioles have yet to win a game in which he has appeared. He pitched a strong 8 1/3 innings last night, but the Boston Red Sox scored a 2-0 victory and shut out the Orioles for the second night in a row.
Right-hander Danny Darwin picked up right where Roger Clemens left off the night before, taking a one-hitter into the eighth inning before sharing the two-hit shutout with relievers Greg Harris and Jeff Russell. He threw a great game, but who hasn't when Valenzuela has been on the other end of the pitching matchup?
The Orioles have scored an average of 1.8 runs in his five starts, by far the worst run support for any member of the Orioles rotation. Valenzuela has given up just seven earned runs in 23 1/3 innings (2.70 ERA) in his past three games, but he'll have to wait at least another five days for his first major-league victory since 1990.
"He continues to throw the ball well," manager Johnny Oates said. "Now that he's been getting to pitch on a regular basis, he's pitched well every time out there."
Valenzuela knows he's making progress. Oates hasn't called a team meeting after one of his outings in more than two weeks. Last night's performance was his longest since his last victory, a 10-4 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Sept. 14, 1990. Not to belabor the point, but the Dodgers scored more runs in that game than the Orioles have scored in all five of Valenzuela's 1993 starts.
The veteran left-hander was characteristically unruffled. He has been around long enough to know that if he continues to pitch as well as he did last night, he'll end up with his share of victories.
"I'm happy with the way I'm pitching, but we didn't win," Valenzuela said. "I said when I came here that I wasn't going to worry about wins. I want to do a job -- to keep the team close and give us a chance to win. I have been doing that, so I'm doing my job. We're not scoring runs, but give Danny Darwin credit. He pitched a good game."
It had been nearly 10 years since the last time the Orioles had been shut out in back-to-back games. It had been 1,609 games since Dave Stieb and Jim Clancy turned the trick for the Toronto Blue Jays on May 21 and 22 of 1983. In case anybody was wondering, the all-time record is 2,097 games by the Detroit Tigers (1976 to '89).
The Orioles staged only one serious threat, putting runners at second and third in the eighth inning on a one-out walk to Leo Gomez and a two-out double by David Segui. But the inning ended when Harold Reynolds was called out on strikes on a pitch that he argued was well outside the strike zone.
It may have been a tough call, but that was not the reason the Orioles dropped the deciding game of the series. They haven't scored since Mark Leonard's sacrifice fly in the eighth inning Monday night gave them a victory in the series opener. They scored two runs in three games, so they probably should feel fortunate to have avoided a sweep.
Valenzuela pitched resourcefully again, but he continues to get hurt in the early innings. This time, he gave up a leadoff home run to Scott Fletcher to open the game and had allowed two runs on six hits by the end of the third.
He had pitched his best game as an Oriole just five days earlier, but also gave up two runs over the first three innings and was not involved in the decision. The start before that, he allowed three runs in the first inning and gave up just one hit over the next six, only to end up with nothing to show for his first solid effort in the Orioles rotation.
"He has pitched great his last three outings," Reynolds said. "Ben [McDonald] also pitched well last night. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to get him any runs."
Oates is more than satisfied with what he's getting from his No. 5 starter. He recognizes that the club has given Valenzuela very little offensive help over his first five starts, and he knows that solid fifth starters are not easy to find.
"In this league, if you can give up two or three runs a ballgame, you're going to be all right," Oates said. "I've been very pleased with the way he's been throwing the ball. There have just been some strange circumstances.
"I get frustrated, but I get frustrated for the team. We're in this together. You just keep encouraging him. He knows he's pitching well. I'd like him to get a win, but I'd rather the team get a win."
The Orioles knew what they were getting when they signed the veteran left-hander -- a wily pitcher who always seems to be working out of trouble -- and Valenzuela lived up to that scouting report again last night. He gave up back-to-back hits in the second inning and worked out of trouble, then allowed three hits in the third for a second Red Sox run.
The third-inning rally wasn't exactly an exhibition of solid hitting. Luis Rivera reached first on a sharp two-hopper that tiptoed around Leo Gomez for a hit. Billy Hatcher followed one-out later with a broken-bat liner that sailed just over the glove of Cal Ripken at short. Mike Greenwell moved Rivera to third with a fly ball to center and Ivan Calderon brought home the run with a perfect two-out bunt single that rolled slowly along the base line until it hit third base.
It may have been a cheap run, but it was very costly to Valenzuela, who has to be wondering if the only way to win around here is to pitch a shutout. The last time he did that was in 1990, when he threw a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
By far, Fernando Valenzuela has gotten the least offensive support of Orioles starting pitchers:
Pitcher .. .. Runs .. Starts .. Avg.
Valenzuela .. 9 .. .. 5 . .. .. 1.8
McDonald . . 29 .. .. 7 . .. .. 4.1
Sutcliffe .. 29 .. .. 7 . .. .. 4.1
Mussina . .. 30 .. .. 7 . .. .. 4.3
Rhodes .. .. 32 .. .. 6 . .. .. 5.3