Orioles plumb new depths of misery

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Orioles' 1994 season reached its lowest point last night at Camden Yards when they lost the opener of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, 7-2.

Then they reached new depths, losing the nightcap, 5-2.

Swept like crumbs off the floor of a season growing messy, the Orioles watched the Indians take three of four games in convincing fashion.

With 14 games remaining before the Aug. 12 strike, the Orioles trail the New York Yankees by six games in the American League East race. In the wild-card race, they trail the Chicago White Sox by three games and the Indians by four. Don't look now, but they hold only a 1 1/2 -game lead over the Kansas City Royals.

By sweeping the doubleheader, the second against the Orioles in three days, the Indians moved into first place in the AL Central. Meanwhile, the Orioles lost for the seventh time in nine games.

Yes, the Orioles were roofed out of two games in Seattle and rained out of one in Baltimore. Yes, they played a day-night doubleheader and a twi-night doubleheader in three days' time.

And yes, the Aug. 12 strike date cast an unmistakable pall over Camden Yards yesterday.

But shouldn't a championship-caliber club overcome such irritants, someone asked the always-frank Mike Mussina, tagged for seven runs (six earned) in the opener.

"As far as I know, we're not a championship-caliber team yet," Mussina said. "Some people call us that based on how much money we've spent and who we put on the field, but we're not playing like one, so I don't know how you can put those two words next to our team."

The Orioles, as stale as last week's doughnuts, were anything but championship-caliber in either game of last night's doubleheader.

Orioles manager Johnny Oates acknowledged the disruptive nature of the recent schedule, but didn't want to use it as an excuse.

"It becomes a little off-the-norm of what professional baseball players are used to," Oates said. "Certainly, it could affect you. But, what do you do about it? Do you stop? Do you give up? Do you quit? I certainly hope not.

"There have been rainouts before. There have been earthquakes before. We're not the first ballclub that has missed some days. What do we do about it? That's the question."

The answer? "Evidently I haven't found it yet," he said.

The calendar says July, but with a strike on the horizon, it's really more like September.

No wonder the Orioles are playing bad baseball and Eddie Murray is rounding into pennant race form.

A pair of September staples showed themselves last night.

Murray homered twice in the second game, running his season total to 17, five of them against the team he once carried.

Fans who grew weary of booing the home team revived the old "Ed-die, Ed-die" chant as he trotted around the bases for the second time of the night.

Those among the sellout crowd of 47,632 had ample cause to boo the home team.

Chris Sabo, who sometimes runs the bases as if in need of a brake job, didn't pick up third base coach Jerry Narron's stop sign for Cal Ripken, who occupied the base Sabo charged toward in the sixth inning of the second game. Sabo, who singled in a run, put the brakes on a two-run rally with his base-running blunder, leaving the Orioles trailing 3-2.

The Orioles had only two runs to show for three singles, a run-scoring double (Rafael Palmeiro), a hit batsman, and a wild pitch in the sixth inning, all with winning pitcher Jason Grimsley (3-1) on the mound.

And left-hander Sid Fernandez had only a loss to show for a complete game in which he struck out 10 and did not walk a batter. Fernandez served three more home run pitches, running his bulging total to 26.

"That's as well as I've seen Sid throw all year," Oates said. "He threw a lot of nasty pitches. But a few weren't so nasty."

Murray ripped his second of three homers in the series with one on in the second, and Tony Pena homered with two outs and no one on in the seventh to give the Indians a 4-2 lead.

The first game left the Orioles with little reason to pat themselves on the back.

Exceptions: The impressive major-league debut of young right-hander Armando Benitez, and the typical subtle brilliance of Ripken, who had three hits and a smoother-than-peanut butter unassisted double play in his 1,995th consecutive start.

For the most part though, the Orioles effort was worthy of C-Span. A real snoozer.

Veteran Indians right-hander Jack Morris (10-6) had a hand in putting the Orioles' bats to sleep. Mixing forkballs, high fastballs and suspended-in-time changeups, Morris limited the Orioles to seven hits and two runs in 7 1/3 innings. He walked four and struck out 10.

Meanwhile, Mussina capped his roughest month of the season with his first July loss, which says something about his season.

In 6 1/3 innings, Mussina allowed nine hits, including home runs to Sandy Alomar, with two on in the second, and Albert Belle, leading off the sixth.

Mussina (14-5) went 3-1 in five July starts, but had a 5.68 ERA.

Thanks to, in order, a shoulder flare-up, the All-Star break, a roof-out, and a rainout, Mussina has made his last four starts with more than the normal four days' rest.

"Physically, I feel fine," Mussina said. "My shoulder's not bothering me. My back's not bothering me. My groin's not bothering me."

What then, what?

"I'm speculating I haven't pitched enough lately," Mussina said.

If the weather and the roofs cooperate, Mussina will be out there every fifth day.

Oates isn't likely to wait that long to take another look at Benitez, who struck out three and allowed two hits in 2 2/3 innings.

"I was joking with him and told him we'll throw you out there against Albert Belle and see what you can do," Oates said. "I was only joking, but it ended up that way."

After Jim Thome's two-run single with one out in the seventh gave the Indians a 7-1 lead, Oates called upon Benitez to face Belle and Murray.

Earlier, Belle had doubled and hit his 33rd home run, and seventh in nine games. It also was Belle's seventh home run in nine games against the Orioles.

Benitez struck out Belle on four pitches, the outfielder waving at a low-outside fastball for strike three. Murray popped to left.

"I might want to see him again," Oates said of Benitez, who won't necessarily be the man to go tomorrow when the Orioles call up a pitcher to make the start.

Benitez, a native of the Dominican Republic, had better command of his fastball and slider than he does of the English language.

"He came in and he wasn't intimidated," Oates said. "I'm not sure he understood a word I said, but who cares when you pitch like that?" Oates said. "I said make sure to stop. He said OK. I said make sure to check the runner at second. He said OK. I said is it raining? He said OK."

Benitez pitched better than OK.

But by the time he took the mound, it was too late.

Alomar's three-run home run put the Orioles in a hole too deep.

The Orioles loaded the bases with one out in the second and eighth and did not score in either inning.

Tough night. Tough series. Tough road ahead for the Orioles.

"We've struggled at times, but I think this is probably our worst time," Palmeiro said. "But we'll break out of it. There's no doubt about that. We're a good team."

A good team that has yet to show it is a championship-caliber team.

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