Twins frustrate Orioles again, 6-3

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Should the Orioles fail to catch the Boston Red Sox or whoever wins the AL East, they will have regrets. Sure victories in May and June that became defeats. Games they should have won.

And all these losses to the Minnesota Twins, who are making a convincing case to be the worst team in baseball. For the third time in six meetings this year, the Twins beat the Orioles, 6-3, last night at Oriole Park. The start of the game was delayed 2 hours, 47 minutes by rain.

Before a sellout crowd of 45,894, Minnesota starter Scott Erickson transformed from a guy who gives up more than six runs per game to a pitcher who shut down the Orioles on three hits over eight innings, his longest outing of the year. The first three hitters in the Baltimore order, Brady Anderson, Manny Alexander and Rafael Palmeiro, were a combined 0-for-13.

The Orioles, who had played poorly and gotten away with it in Monday night's 9-4 victory, fell behind early last night and failed to capitalize in two great opportunities to get back into the game. Aside from a last-gasp, two-run single by Curtis Goodwin in the ninth, about the only good news for the Orioles was that Cal Ripken scored two runs, the 1,232nd and 1,233rd of his career, to tie and pass Brooks Robinson for most runs in club history.

Minnesota has won 19 games and lost 44 (including seven of eight before last night), yet it is playing .500 ball against the Orioles. Erickson dominated the Orioles, pitching much like Orioles starter Kevin Brown. Heavy sinker, clocked in the early innings around 88-91 mph.

"He threw a great game," said Orioles manager Phil Regan. "He (( had a great sinker. I don't know how many ground balls we hit, but it was a lot."

Fifteen of the 24 Orioles outs with Erickson on the mound came on ground balls. On any given night, Regan said, Erickson can beat anybody.

"He kept the ball down," Goodwin said. "A couple of times we thought we could get to him, but we hit ground-ball double plays."

Palmeiro added: "He fell behind a lot of hitters 3-1 and 2-0, but he always made the pitch he needed to get himself out of the jam."

And Erickson got into jams.

He battled and lost to Ripken leading off the second, walking him after 10 pitches. Erickson then walked Harold Baines -- first and second and nobody out, with the Twins leading 2-0.

Kevin Bass hit into a fielder's choice, Ripken moving to third. But catcher Chris Hoiles rapped into a 5-4-3 double play.

Erickson walked Leo Gomez to start the third (he walked leadoff hitters three times). Goodwin slapped a grounder to first baseman Scott Stahoviak, who stepped on first and threw to shortstop Pat Meares in an attempt to nip Gomez at second. But Gomez had stopped between first and second, and was cut down in the ensuing rundown.

The Orioles finally scored in the fourth. Ripken singled with two outs, and Baines golfed a deep fly to center -- where Kirby Puckett was stationed for the first time in more than a year. He backed up and turned and turned again, misplaying the ball, which finally came down at the base of the center-field wall. Ripken scored on the double, cutting the Minnesota lead to two runs.

The fireworks began at the Inner Harbor in the top of the seventh inning, eliciting ooohs and aaahs from the fans. The Orioles could have used a few more bangs and pops themselves in the bottom of the seventh.

Baines walked again, and after Bass struck out, Hoiles stroked a hard grounder inside the first base bag, down into the corner. Suddenly, the Orioles were in business. Tying run on second, only one out.

Then Gomez swung meekly with an 0-1 count, reaching at a low pitch and wedging a popup to short -- given the context, maybe the biggest out of the night. The Orioles needed a two-out hit from Goodwin, and he dribbled a grounder out in front of the plate to end the inning.

The Orioles trailed 6-1 in the ninth, when they put together three straight hits with two outs against closer Rick Aguilera, cutting the lead to 6-3. Brady Anderson walked to the plate as the potential tying run, and those remaining in the stands had visions of the comeback in Toronto dancing in their heads.

Nothing doing. Anderson struck out.

Orioles starter Scott Klingenbeck did exactly what he has been doing, pitching just well enough to give them a chance to win, and just poorly enough so that if the opposing pitcher is doing well -- and Erickson was -- he can't win. Klingenbeck allowed three runs in six innings.

The Twins banged him around early. Chuck Knoblauch doubled to right to start the game and advanced to third on a fly ball.

Klingenbeck got a huge out when he gloved a one-hopper from Puckett, looked Knoblauch back to third and threw to first. But he made a huge mistake with his first pitch to the right-handed hitting Pedro Munoz.

Klingenbeck, wanting to get ahead on the count, threw Munoz a first-pitch fastball -- not necessarily a bad choice, but his location was terrible. Out over the plate, belt high. Munoz reached out and mashed a long, high drive over the right-field scoreboard. Twins 2, Orioles 0.

In the third inning, Puckett doubled into the right-center-field gap. Munoz hurt Klingenbeck again, rapping a single to score Puckett. The Orioles trailed 3-0, and going into last night, they were 12-19 when opponents scored the first run.

Orioles reliever Armando Benitez struck out three and walked one in the seventh. In the eighth, he fell apart. He walked the leadoff hitter, Pat Mastellar, and after Puckett popped out, Munoz singled and Marty Cordova singled and if this had

been a boxing match it would have been stopped at this point for mercy.

But there's no crying in baseball, and no mercy. Jesse Orosco relieved Benitez, and Stahoviak singled, Scott Leius was walked intentionally and Matt Merullo dropped a squeeze bunt that became a single.

By the time Meares ended the inning by hitting into a double play -- OK, maybe there is some mercy in baseball -- the Twins had added three runs.

ORIOLES TONIGHT

Opponent: Minnesota Twins

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Twins' Mike Trombley (0-3, 5.50) vs. Orioles' Arthur Rhodes (2-2, 6.92)

Tickets: 10,000 remain

HITS AND MISSES

On the field: Sid Fernandez made his first relief appearance since being demoted to the bullpen, entering the game in the ninth inning with the Orioles trailing, 6-1. He pitched one scoreless inning, giving up a hit and an intentional walk and striking out two.

In the dugout: On a pop foul in the top of the fifth, catcher Chris Hoiles hustled toward the Orioles dugout in an unsuccessful attempt to make a play. He stumbled down the dugout steps -- right into the arms of backup catcher Greg Zaun, who prevented Hoiles from falling into the bench.

In the clubhouse: "I only pitched one inning," Fernandez said. "It's no big deal. It doesn't mean anything." Is he comfortable pitching out of the bullpen? "I won't answer that question," he said.

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