As much as pitching coach Claude Osteen loved the way Kevin Brown competed when both were with the Texas Rangers, Brown had a habit that made him cringe -- reaching with his bare hand for balls hit back through the middle.
Can't do that, Osteen would warn him, you'll get hurt. But Brown continued to knock down grounders and liners with an unprotected hand without consequence.
Until last night. In the second inning of a 4-1 loss to Boston and Roger Clemens, a line drive hit by Red Sox right fielder Troy O'Leary smashed off Brown's outstretched pitching hand, dislocating the first joint of his right index finger.
Brown was placed on the 15-day disabled list after the game, along with Ben McDonald, and the Orioles recalled reliever Armando Benitez and purchased the contract of right-handed reliever Jimmy Myers from Triple-A Rochester. Manager Phil Regan guessed that with "that type of injury, you're talking four to six weeks" before Brown returns. At least. Minnesota right-hander Greg Harris suffered a similar injury in spring training, and hasn't pitched since. Brown will be examined by hand specialist Dr. Hugh Baugher, who will determine exactly how long Brown will be sidelined.
But whether it's one start or five or more, the loss of the right-hander, heretofore the Orioles' best and most durable pitcher of the season, is devastating to a team trying to overcome a brutal start and climb back into the American League East race.
"I don't know what you call it," said Brown, quietly. "Call it strange. It's pretty much the kind of year the whole team's had."
Before last night's game, Brown led the Orioles in innings with 74 2/3 (ranking ninth in the AL), strikeouts with 60 (sixth in the AL), and had the best ERA of any Orioles starter (3.74), and tied with Mike Mussina for the team lead in victories (five).
He was the perfect pitcher to open this four-game series against first-place Boston and Clemens. The Brown sinker against the Clemens fastball.
After a scoreless first, Brown struck out Jose Canseco to open the second inning. Mike Greenwell singled and stole second, and Tim Naehring walked, bringing O'Leary to the plate.
The Red Sox right fielder nailed a hard shot up the middle, eight or nine feet off the ground. Brown leaped up off the 10-inch mound, and the ball smashed off the tip of his finger and landed in short center field. As he landed, Brown stepped off the first-base side of the mound and drew his injured hand between his knees in pain.
Greenwell scored from second, Naehring raced to third and O'Leary stopped at first, but those were only minor details for the Orioles at that point. Even before the play ended, Orioles trainer Jaime Reed was moving out of the dugout.
When he got to Brown, they both looked at the hand, and it was clear that there would be no debate whether he remained in the game. He walked off, and as he passed through the dugout and into the clubhouse, an on-looker said that Brown's swollen and misshapen index finger "looked like the letter Z."
Osteen is the pitching coach for the Orioles' Triple-A Rochester affiliate now. "He's notorious for that," Osteen said last night, after hearing of Brown's injury. "It's human nature. He's an athlete and he's very competitive. He'll stick his hand out for anything."
The Orioles have few short-term means of replacing Brown and McDonald in their rotation, and even fewer solutions if their absences are prolonged. Left-hander Sid Fernandez is already on the disabled list. Two weeks ago, Scott Klingenbeck was the best pitcher Rochester had to offer, and with Brown and McDonald down, Klingenbeck is, in effect, the Orioles' No. 2 starter.
The Orioles had hoped Fernandez could continue his rehabilitation assignment at Double-A Bowie long enough to strengthen his arm, pitch seven or eight innings. But now they may need him immediately.
Regan said after last night's game that before Tuesday's game in Milwaukee -- a game that Brown was supposed to start -- the Orioles would call up a starter from Rochester, or deal for a pitcher.
They could attempt to trade for a high-profile pitcher, such as Minnesota's Kevin Tapani or Detroit's David Wells. However, unless one pitcher is seen as the missing piece to contending for the AL East title -- and some in the organization think the team needs at least one more solid position player, as well -- then they may simply try to get by with what they have.
What they have wasn't good enough last night. Mike Oquist relieved Brown, and a grounder scored Boston's second run of the second inning. The Red Sox added a third run in the top of the third, when first baseman Mo Vaughn launched his 18th homer to right field.
The Orioles threatened several times against Clemens, but as the O's have proven time and again this year, bluffing doesn't work in baseball.
They had runners on first and third in the fourth inning, and couldn't score; Chris Hoiles ended that rally with a groundout.
The Orioles loaded the bases after there were two outs in the seventh, when Curtis Goodwin doubled and Clemens walked Brady Anderson and Jeffrey Hammonds.
With the left-hand hitting Rafael Palmeiro up next, Rangers manager Kevin Kennedy chose to go with a fresh lefty, Rheal Cormier, rather than stick with his tiring right-handed starter. Clemens had walked Hammonds on four pitches, all of them high and far out of the strike zone.
Palmeiro, with three hits in his last 23 at-bats before facing
Cormier, hit a liner to left -- but right at Greenwell, for the third out. Palmeiro smashed his helmet down in anger.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Red Sox's Zane Smith (2-2, 4.95) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (5-5, 5.13)
Tickets: 3,500 remain
HITS AND MISSES
On the field: Harold Baines played in his 1,000th game at designated hitter last night, the third player in major-league history to reach that mark, after Hal McRae (1,428) and Don Baylor (1,258). Baines is the only player ever to play in 1,000 games at both DH and another position, having played 1,060 in the outfield. His last game in the outfield was on the last day of the season in 1992, for the Oakland Athletics.
In the dugout: Jamie Moyer gave the Orioles' weary bullpen a huge break by pitching seven innings Tuesday, but when Kevin Brown hurt his finger in the second inning, the relievers were back at it last night. Mike Oquist, who threw two innings Sunday and 1 1/3 innings Tuesday, replaced Brown and went 4 2/3 innings. Right-hander Gene Harris pitched two innings before Jesse Orosco pitched the last inning. Orioles manager Phil Regan said Armando Benitez and Jimmy Myers are being called up today because the bullpen is exhausted.
In the clubhouse: Red Sox left fielder Mike Greenwell, on Boston's early lead in the AL East: "I'd rather be where we are than where anyone else is, but sometimes it's better to be five games back than five games up. We have to learn how to play with a lead. We are learning how to be in first place. A lot of people on this team have never been in a pennant race."