O's back Mussina, whip A's, 13-3

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Oakland Athletics put their pitching staff on parade again last night, but it bore little resemblance to the one that showed up at Camden Yards the previous evening.

The Orioles hammered three A's pitchers for 15 hits on the way to a 13-3 victory, providing far more offensive support than rejuvenated starter Mike Mussina would need to become the American League's second 13-game winner.

Lest anyone forget, Oakland manager Tony La Russa had set a club record when he sent eight pitchers to the mound in Thursday night's victory. This time, A's starter Bobby Witt and a pair of relievers allowed the Orioles to get even with a series of big innings that carried them to their fifth victory in the last six games.

So much for Witt's string of three shutouts. His scoreless innings streak ended at 28 with a two-run second inning and he left the game early with soreness in his rib cage.

So much for the A's five-game winning streak, though their 19-4 run since June 13 remains very impressive.

The night belonged to Mussina, who looked very strong after taking a couple of extra days off to get over some soreness in his neck and upper back. He pitched seven overpowering innings to help the Orioles keep pace 1 1/2 games behind the first-place New York Yankees in the American League East.

"It looked like that was just what the doctor ordered," said manager Johnny Oates, who responded to Mussina's request for a day off by moving him back two days in the rotation. "He was very strong from the first pitch to the last."

Mussina gave up a run on five hits and struck out eight to win for the sixth time in his last seven starts. He made it look easy, striking out five batters in the first two innings. The offense did the rest, scoring in bunches to make it look even easier on a damp night when the gametime temperature was 99 degrees.

"We've been hitting the ball well lately," Oates said. "We realized that Bobby Witt had thrown three straight shutouts. I guess we were fortunate that he pulled a rib cage muscle."

Catcher Chris Hoiles put the Orioles in control with a three-run homer in the third inning and Mark McLemore paced the offensive attack with a four-hit performance that raised his average to .274.

The big question facing the Orioles at the outset last night was this: Which Bobby Witt they were going to get -- the one who was 4-7 with a 6.15 ERA two weeks ago or the one who had pitched three consecutive shutouts coming into last night's game?

They didn't have to wait long for an answer. Witt gave up three hits in the second inning and the Orioles scored twice to snap his impressive string of 27 scoreless innings.

Not that it was entirely his fault. Witt might have gotten out of the inning if shortstop Mike Bordick had taken time to make a good throw to the plate on a bases-loaded grounder by Jeffrey Hammonds, but the ball sailed past catcher Scott Hemond for an error that allowed both runs to score.

It was an unorthodox play at that point in the game, but Bordick had his reasons. The ball took him away from second base, so there was a far better chance to get Baines at the plate than to double up the speedy Hammonds. If he had made an accurate throw, he might have preserved the scoreless innings streak, because Witt got Brady Anderson to pop out and Chris Sabo on a routine grounder to end the inning.

Witt couldn't point a finger at anyone but himself for what happened in the third inning. He walked Cal Ripken with one out and hit Leo Gomez with a pitch an out later, extending the inning just long enough for Hoiles to hammer a three-run homer into the left field bleachers.

Hoiles, who has not been particularly consistent at the plate, has been reaching the fences with surprising regularity over the last three weeks. The home run was his 17th of the year -- which leads the club -- and it was his ninth in the last 21 games.

Minutes later, La Russa and trainer Barry Weinberg went to the mound to see if there was something physically wrong with Witt, who would throw one more pitch before La Russa returned to the mound and removed him from the game.

Witt gave up five runs (three earned) on six hits over 2 2/3 innings to register his first loss since June 13, but the A's were more concerned about the long-term implications of his early departure than the outcome of the game.

"He felt it on a pitch to Ripken, the second batter of the inning," La Russa said. "He went on and pitched to another two, three guys. That's where it gets a little scary. I wish he would have come out after he felt it. He made a lot of throws arter that. We'll see."

Mussina continued to mow them down, as if he couldn't wait to head for Pittsburgh for his second consecutive All-Star Game. He will go there tied for the American League lead with his 13 victories and ranked among the league's top five pitchers with a 2.96 ERA.

"I felt good," Mussina said. "I had a good fastball and good location. I made some good pitches to get some strikeouts early. I mixed it up a little bit, but that probably was the best fastball I've had this year.

"My history has been that I pitch pretty well on six days rest, so I thought the extra day would be beneficial."

He carried a shutout into the fifth inning, before right fielder Chris Sabo played a slicing fly ball by Bordick into a triple and Stan Javier delivered a two-out single to drive put the A's on the scoreboard.

The Orioles answered quickly, padding the lead for Mussina with a two-out rally in the bottom of the inning that blew the game wide open. There was a runner on and two outs when seven consecutive Orioles reached base to push home five more runs.

Anderson brought home two with a bases-loaded single and Sabo drove in two more with his second hit of the game. Rafael Palmeiro and Cal Ripken followed with back-to-back singles to complete the five-run rally before Harold Baines flied out in his second at-bat of the inning to end it.

McLemore didn't register a single RBI, but he had a very big night at the plate. He bounced an infield hit off Witt to load the bases in the two-run second, singled in the third and delivered a two-out double to help set the table for the top of the order in the fifth. He singled in his fourth at-bat, but grounded out to first in the eighth to end his bid for a five-hit game.

ORIOLES TONIGHT

Opponent: Oakland Athletics

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Athletics' Steve Ontiveros (5-2, 2.78) vs. Orioles' Sid Fernandez (5-4, 4.50)

Tickets: Several hundred scattered singles remain, not including bleacher and 275 standing-room tickets that go on sale when the gates open.

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