MINNEAPOLIS -- Rick Sutcliffe is having the same bad dream all over again. He suffered through a winless July a year ago and now is in danger of having another.
Sutcliffe gave up six runs on 10 hits in 3 1/3 innings to fall to 0-3 this month, but that's only the half of it. He is 0-8 in July since he signed with the Orioles before the 1992 season.
This has to be particularly disheartening for the veteran right-hander, since Sutcliffe was signed two winters ago to lead a developing club into contention. He has -- for the most part -- done just that, but the team has had to pull him through a midsummer slump in each of his two seasons in Baltimore.
Not that anything has been able to drag the club down during the past two months. The loss last night dropped the Orioles back into fourth place in the American League East and gave them back-to-back defeats for the first time since July 4-5, but they remain within sniffing distance of first place.
Sutcliffe has not won since June 23. The loss dropped his record to 8-6 and raised his ERA to 5.32. It also raised the level of frustration to a season high for a pitcher who does not take losing lightly.
"It's the same old story," he said. "When I start the game out, I know what I've done the last few starts. I know how bad it is. That just complicates things early in the game. I'm just sick of it."
The Orioles had every reason to believe that Sutcliffe had righted himself with his solid -- though hard-luck -- complete-game performance against the Twins Saturday at Camden Yards, but last night he looked more like the pitcher who had been hit hard in his three previous starts.
He was staked to a two-run lead in the top of the first inning when four of the first five Orioles hitters reached base against Twins right-hander Willie Banks. Harold Baines and Cal Ripken each drove in runs, but the lead did not survive for long.
Sutcliffe gave up three runs in the bottom of the first and never really collected himself after that. He has been particularly vulnerable at the outset during this frustrating midseason slump, giving up 15 first-inning runs in his last six starts.
Twins center fielder Shane Mack led off the bottom of the first with a single and Kirby Puckett drove a double off the right-field wall that brought Mack all the way around to score.
It was the 329th double of Puckett's career, tying him with Tony Oliva for the Twins' career record, but it might have been more than that.
The ball appeared to hit the border of the plastic curtain that serves as a tall wall in right, but it bounded so far back into play that it seemed to have hit something harder than tarpaulin. If it did, it should have been ruled a home run, but it was all academic. Puckett would come around to score on a wild pitch and a ground out by Dave Winfield before Brian Harper gave the Twins the lead with a run-scoring single.
Sutcliffe appeared to settle down at that point, retiring five of the next six batters, but the Twins took advantage of a two-out walk to stage a two-run rally in the third. The walk to Kent Hrbek kept the inning alive long enough for Winfield to double home a run and Harper to deliver his second RBI single of the game.
The Twins threatened to blow the game open in the fourth, when Sutcliffe allowed no-out singles to the last two batters in the Minnesota lineup and one-out singles to Chuck Knoblauch and Puckett for a run. But reliever Alan Mills came on to retire Hrbek and Winfield with the bases loaded to end the inning and avoid an early rout.
"There's nothing physically wrong," Sutcliffe said. "I'm just not making my pitches. Everything is in the middle of the plate and everything is up. I need to stay back and relax. I just don't know. There is nobody here who wants to win more than I do."
Sutcliffe turned things around after he went 0-5 last year, but he is getting hit even harder this year. He is 0-3 with an 8.82 ERA in July and 0-4 with a 9.13 ERA in his five starts dating back to June 28.
"What am I supposed to do, just wait around until Aug. 1," he said. "That's no answer. The professional side of it tells you to talk about how hard you're working. We've watched videotape until I'm sick of it. When I'm going good, my side work lasts six to eight minutes. Now, I'm out there for 45 minutes working on location. It's got to get better."
Perhaps if it was any other veteran pitcher, manager Johnny Oates might have to consider juggling the rotation, but Sutcliffe bounced back under similar circumstances last year and he will get every opportunity to do it again. He plays such a vital role both on and off the field that Oates is hesitant to tamper with the good chemistry that has developed during the past two months.
"If there ever comes a time to change the pitching rotation, his leadership would have to be taken into consideration," Oates said. "You have to realize what impact he has on the ballclub even when he's not pitching."
And then there is the hope that comes from the knowledge that Sutcliffe bounced back to have an undefeated August a year ago.
"It improved last year, didn't it?" Oates said. "What if I had shut him down last year? What did he do, go 4-0 in August? He couldn't have done that if we had shut him down."
AL EAST RACE
Team .. .. ..W .. ..L .. ..Pct. .. ..GB
Toronto .. .54 .. 43.. . .557.. ... --
Boston ... .52 .. .43.. . .547 .. .. .1
New York .. 53 .. .44.. . .546 .. .. .1
Orioles .. .52 .. .44.. . .542 .. .. .1 1/2
Detroit .. .50 .. .46.. . .521 .. .. .3 1/2
Minnesota 8, Orioles 4
Kansas City 12, Detroit 6
New York 12, California 1
Boston 9, Oakland 7
Toronto 8, Texas 7
For Rick Sutcliffe, struggling in July is nothing new. Aside from his 0-3 record and 8.82 ERA this month, Sutcliffe was 4-13 in July in the five seasons before this one. A month-by-month look: 6Month .. .. .. ..W-L .. .. ..ERA .. ..Inn. .. ..Hits
April .. .. .. ..9-8 .. .. .3.78 .. ..138 .. .. .132
May .. .. .. .. .9-7 .. .. .5.66 .. .125 2/3 .. ....134
June .. .. .. ...9-5 .. .. .3.38 .. .101 1/3 .. .. .103
July .. .. .. ..4-13 .. .. .3.90 .. ..127 .. .. .128
August .. .. ...11-5 .. .. .2.58 .. .174 1/3 .. .. .147
Sep/Oct .. .. ...9-9 .. .. .5.38 .. ..144 .. .. .162