Bullpen cold just as things heat up


BOSTON -- You lose division titles on nights such as this.

Nights when you're on the road and the other team is fading fast and their ballpark isn't full anymore and their starting pitcher hasn't won in 67 days.

Nights when the wind is blowing out and your starting pitcher has the ability to blow up, but still, there is more reason to expect to win, which means you have more to lose.

Nights when the game is nothing if not a trap for a club that is flying and starting to believe everything is falling into place and this is one of those blessed years.

The Orioles got snagged in the trap last night at Fenway Park. Up four in the early going, so close to picking up ground on the Blue Jays that they could almost feel it, they gave up their lead, game and momentum to the Red Sox in a 6-4 loss marked by pitching ranging from poor to miserable.

It was fair to call the game critical with Fernando Valenzuela pitching tonight and Roger Clemens tomorrow night, and early home runs by Harold Baines and Chris Hoiles had Arthur Rhodes and the Orioles set up for a win. But everything came apart in a long, ugly sixth inning.

The Red Sox were anything but hot coming in, with losses in eight of their last 12 games and 20 of their last 30. They're on the road to lifeless. The helpful Orioles gave them a last fling.

No, the Orioles didn't blow their postseason chances in a night. They're still just two games behind the Jays. They've still won 11 of 14.

But, in the final reckoning, this one will be a coulda game. As in woulda, coulda, shoulda.

It all came down to one at-bat, one confrontation, with two outs in the bottom of the fifth and the Orioles up, 4-0. The bases were loaded and Arthur Rhodes was pitching to Sox slugger Mo Vaughn.

A hairy situation, but there was reason for the Orioles to be hopeful. Two innings earlier, Rhodes has retired Vaughn in the same circumstances, with the bases loaded and two out. Yes, it was more because Vaughn had erred, swinging at the first pitch (and grounding out) after Rhodes had walked the previous batter on four pitches, but the escape had buoyed Rhodes.

Predictably, Vaughn played it cooler in the fifth, taking the first pitch, working the count to 2-2, fouling off three pitches as he waited for the pitch he wanted. When he finally got it, he lined a single to right field and the Sox had their first two runs.

Manager Johnny Oates immediately yanked Rhodes, turning it into a game for the bullpen to win. No one could second-guess Oates at the time -- the bullpen has been brilliant, and Rhodes already had yielded seven hits -- but on this night suddenly the bullpen was, well, outmanned.

Todd Frohwirth was back in Baltimore, having become a father earlier in the day. Gregg Olson was on the DL. And Mark Williamson, whom Oates brought in had an ERA of over 8.00 in his last 13 games.


Williamson managed to get the out to end the fifth, but the Sox began the sixth with a single, run-scoring double and walk. Two outs got Williamson close to an escape, but, after an intentional walk, a two-run single by Tim Naehring chased Willy and Oates brought in. . .

. . .Brad Pennington?

Indeed, this was the night the bullpen was outmanned.

Pennington was last seen getting hit so hard in Detroit that he fell out of the major leagues. He'd recovered strongly in Rochester, but he has trouble throwing strikes and certainly isn't the pitcher to bring in with the bases loaded. Still, Oates wanted a lefty to throw to Vaughn, and Jim Poole wasn't the man because, with Olson out, he's a closer.

Anyway, Pennington walked two batters, giving the Sox another run, and Oates pulled him in favor of Kevin McGehee, who gave up a single that bumped the Sox lead to 6-4. And that was that on a night when the Sox bullpen shut down the Orioles on three hits in five scoreless innings.

Things would have been different had Rhodes retired Vaughn the second time with the bases loaded, keeping the bullpen in the bullpen longer. And things might have been different had real life not intervened and Frohwirth been available.

Anyway, the end result was a loss that stung because of the four-run lead that vanished; a loss that will make the next two nights considerably more tense, particularly considering that Valenzuela hasn't won once in his last nine starts.

The Orioles have cruised back into contention with nary a false step, with two weeks that have bordered on perfect. But now it gets tough.

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