MINNEAPOLIS -- Rookie catcher Greg Zaun has been with the Orioles less than a month and he's learning about life in the big leagues. Yesterday, he walked up to a couple of teammates with a burning question.
"Do we always play this bad against the Twins?" he asked.
In 1995 -- absolutely. With much help from the Orioles, in the way of hitting and defensive mistakes, Minnesota edged the Orioles, 5-2, yesterday, in the final game between the two teams this season. The Twins, a team that has supplanted the San Diego Padres as the laughingstock of baseball, took six of nine games from the Orioles this year.
"We needed to come in here and take two," said Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, "and we didn't."
The Orioles had won eight straight road games going into this two-game series, and had closed to within four games of first-place Boston. They were playing well. But in the Metrodome, they played miserably, and today are six games out of first.
Scott Erickson, starting against his former teammates for the first time yesterday, pitched OK. However, the Orioles couldn't hit and they couldn't field.
The Twins have the worst pitching in the majors, their club ERA an absurd 5.77. In two days against this supposedly awful staff, the Orioles -- albeit without Chris Hoiles or Jeffrey Hammonds, or Bobby Bonilla -- mustered a grand total of 10 hits.
Frankie Rodriguez, the Twins' starter yesterday, had no major-league victories before he took the mound against the Orioles. He is an erratic youngster, the prospect Boston traded for Rick Aguilera, and of the 96 pitches he threw the Orioles, only 46 were strikes.
Nevertheless, the Orioles kept on swinging, and got three hits and one run in six innings against him. "He threw a lot of balls [out of the strike zone]," said Palmeiro, "and he got behind the count a lot. But he made good pitches when he had to."
Orioles right fielder Kevin Bass said Rodriguez pitched very differently than what they had anticipated. If Rodriguez, who throws very hard, gets behind in the count, you could look for him to throw a fastball, Bass said the Orioles had heard.
Instead, Rodriguez repeatedly threw a sinker that tailed away from left-handed hitters and into right-handed hitters -- even when he was down in the count. "He just never gave in with that turnover sinker," Bass said, making a motion to demonstrate how Rodriguez turned his hand over. "He stuck with his game plan. He was trying to be a pitcher instead of a thrower, to his credit."
The Orioles didn't adjust; they chased the sinker outside of the strike zone. Cal Ripken walked to lead off the second inning, and with the count 3-0, Harold Baines grounded a sinker to short, starting a double play. It was just the first of four double plays by the Twins.
Ripken walked to open the fourth, and Baines hit into another double play. Ripken bounced to third for the third twin-killing in the sixth, and pinch hitter Mark Smith ended the eighth with a double-play grounder.
Erickson retired the first nine hitters he faced, but in the fourth, the Twins scored three runs that would prove to be decisive. Chuck Knoblauch hit a roller up the middle for a single. Rich Becker hit a chopper toward first, where Palmeiro yelled to Erickson to field the ball and step on the base himself. By the time Palmeiro realized this couldn't happen, it was too late. "I was in no-man's land," Palmeiro said.
Kirby Puckett slashed a single, scoring Knoblauch, and when left fielder Brady Anderson threw over cut-off man Jeff Huson, Becker went to third. A wild pitch advanced Puckett to second. Matt Merullo singled to left, driving home both runners.
The Orioles' follies continued. Down 3-1 with one out in the fifth, center fielder Curtis Goodwin drove a ball into the left-center-field gap and was thrown out trying to reach third. In the eighth, the Twins had a runner at third when Becker hit a bouncer to third baseman Leo Gomez -- the infield was in -- who threw home to catcher Cesar Devarez.
As runner Pat Meares charged home, Devarez backed up and reached out to make the tag. Umpire Terry Craft called Meares safe, a call Orioles manager Phil Regan argued. Afterward, though, Regan said, "We should've made the tag anyway. It was an easy play."
The Orioles' clubhouse was silent in the aftermath, some players muttering or shaking their heads. "I don't know what the deal is," said Huson. "Maybe we expect too much [playing the Twins], or too little, depending on how you look at it. The thing you've got to remember is that on any given day . . . they can beat anybody."
Huson said he didn't think the Orioles felt overconfident, noting that they are very even with their emotions. "I know this," he said. "We don't sit in here and say, 'We're going to beat these guys.' "
The Twins, on the other hand, can feel that way about the Orioles.
Opponent: Kansas City Royals
Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jamie Moyer (5-3, 3.36) vs. Royals' Melvin Bunch (0-1, 5.02)