Scott Erickson's ability to induce ground balls is what made him so appealing to the Orioles. The thinking was getting him off the artificial turf in the Metrodome would transform the right-hander into a more consistent performer.
That thinking has been sound thus far, as his 3.51 ERA and the Orioles' 3-1 record in games he has started attests. But Erickson also brings an added dimension to the mound -- the ability to get a needed strikeout. And that's what enabled him to survive six innings in the Orioles' 4-3 win over Texas on Tuesday.
Of the first 15 outs Erickson recorded, nine came via infield grounders. But the two that were most important were his last two, a pair of strikeouts that accounted for half his total for the night.
An infield single by Mark McLemore and a walk to Will Clark to open the sixth put Erickson within one swing of his second Orioles loss. The next two hitters were Juan Gonzalez and Mickey Tettleton, who had singled and homered to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead in the second inning.
The numbers indicated those runs didn't come by accident. Gonzalez brought to the plate a .290 career average, with four home runs (in 31 at-bats) against Erickson. Tettleton had a .333 mark (11-for-33) with a pair of homers.
Neither of those two is noted as a ground-ball hitter, so the chances of something damaging happening if they put the ball in play was on the high side. However, both Gonzalez (34 in 178 at-bats) and Tettleton (59 in 253) are prone to strikeouts.
Erickson is hardly a strikeout pitcher (59 in 113 1/3 innings), but neither can he be classified among the more typical soft-tossing sinkerballers. In this precarious situation, he took his arsenal to the next level.
The ensuing strikeout of Gonzalez was probably the most important out of the game. With an important insurance run (the Rangers led 3-2 at the time) still at second base, McLemore tried to get in position for a sacrifice fly, but was thrown out trying to steal third.
After Tettleton struck out to end the inning, the importance of the strikeout scenario was emphasized when Ivan Rodriguez and Rusty Greer finished Erickson by opening the next inning with singles.
That prompted Phil Regan to play the seventh inning as though it was the ninth. He made two pitching changes (Mark Lee and Terry Clark) to keep the Rangers in check.
Texas manager Johnny Oates had to decide whether to attempt a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners for the No. 9 hitter, shortstop Benji Gil (93 strikeouts in 258 at-bats to that point), or take a swing with right-handed pinch hitter Steve Buechele against the left-handed Lee. Still guarding a one-run lead, Oates followed normal procedure and stayed with his defense.
Buechele popped out, then Clark struck out Gil and got Otis Nixon to fly out. The strategic wheels continued to spin as the Orioles scratched out a tying run in the seventh and one to win it in the ninth.
But when it was all over, Erickson's strikeout of Gonzalez remained the game's turning point.