The Orioles deserved some slack the first three weeks of the season. Their bullpen was hurt by the shortened spring training. Their fundamentals may have suffered because they had no home exhibition games. Their run production was down, but it was still early.
Well, it's no longer early, and if there's a panic button nearby, push it. The Orioles blew another lead last night, blew another game, wasted a season-high 16 hits and lost to the Detroit Tigers, 9-8, before 36,249 at Camden Yards.
First baseman Rafael Palmeiro went 4-for-4 with two homers and four RBIs, Cal Ripken hit a homer, and it was all meaningless. The Orioles battled back from a 6-2 deficit to take the lead before closer Doug Jones gave up two runs in the top of the ninth inning.
The Tigers' ninth-inning rally started with one out, when Cecil Fielder was safe at first on an error by third baseman Leo Gomez. Kirk Gibson looped a single to left, and then Travis Fryman hit a bloop double off a changeup down the right-field line, which scored both Gibson and pinch runner Rudy Pemberton. The Orioles have blown three of five save opportunities.
Fryman is now 6-for-9 against Jones, with three doubles.
"When Jones was in the American League with Cleveland a few years ago," Fryman said, "that [the changeup] is all I looked for."
The Orioles went down in the bottom of the ninth 1-2-3, and all that offense went down the tube. Catcher Chris Hoiles said over the weekend that the Orioles eventually will hit. Eventually turned out to be last night, after the Tigers moved ahead 6-2, most of it against starter Ben McDonald.
Second baseman Bret Barberie beat out an infield single to start the fourth inning -- and paid the price. Barberie was leveled when he ran full force into the lowered left shoulder of Tigers starter Sean Bergman.
That hit looked to be meaningless when Sherman Obando struck out and Gomez flied out. But Brady Anderson, who started in center field for the first time this year, tripled off the top lip of the padding on the right-field wall. Kevin Bass singled to right to score Anderson, and a camera aimed at the Tigers dugout found the craggy and disheartened face of Detroit manager Sparky Anderson. A disintegrating lead, this was something he had seen before; the Tigers' ERA beginning last's night game was 5.92.
Sparky probably had no idea, however, just how quickly the lead would disappear. Palmeiro, who had hit a two-run homer in the first inning, slammed an opposite-field homer, tying the score at 6-all. Palmeiro leads the Orioles with 19 RBIs.
Bergman spat and walked around the mound and looked mad and went back to work. But the result was the same as Ripken ripped a line drive deep into the left-field stands.
Sometimes pitcher vs. hitter statistics can be misleading, because they're based on so few at-bats and there can be dozens of mitigating factors. However, it can safely be said that Bergman has trouble with Palmeiro and Ripken: The Orioles' 3-4 hitters are, lifetime, a combined 8-for-9 against Bergman, with five homers (Palmeiro three, Ripken two).
John Doherty relieved Bergman, mercifully, and the Orioles kept the inning going, Harold Baines and Hoiles each singling. But Manny Alexander hit a soft liner to second for the final out -- the first Oriole to be retired after six straight hits.
Ripken drove in the Orioles' eighth run, as well. The O's loaded the bases with two outs, Gomez and Bass hitting singles and Palmeiro walking. Ripken hit a chopper back toward Doherty. But as he reached for the ball, Doherty lost his balance and fell backward, the ball bouncing off his glove and falling behind the mound. By the time Doherty's infielders rushed in to help, Gomez had scored.
The Tigers scored a run in the seventh against Alan Mills, closing to within a run. The Orioles tried to hold off Detroit with help from Damon Buford, who had entered the game as a defensive replacement for the seventh inning.
With one out in the eighth, Tigers center fielder Chad Curtis smashed a liner to center, and Buford ran back toward the wall. As he hit the warning track, he reached up, held his hands up like a basket, caught the ball over his shoulder and then collided with the wall.
McDonald, erratic in Boston last week, continued to struggle with his control against Detroit. He threw a whopping 79 pitches in 2 2/3 innings, less than half of them (38) for strikes. He walked four. He hit a batter. By the time Orioles manager Phil Regan called for reliever Mike Oquist, the Orioles trailed 5-2.
An early hook, but McDonald had given little indication that he was going to find himself. In his last 7 2/3 innings, McDonald has walked nine, hit three batters and allowed eight runs.
The Tigers added a run against Oquist in the fourth, taking a 6-2 lead. They would need more later, and would get them, sounding an alarm for Orioles fans.
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Tigers' Buddy Groom (1-1, 4.38) vs. Orioles' Kevin Brown (2-1, 4.22)
Tickets: 11,600 remain