KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Jimmy Key offered a solid start. Brady Anderson provided his first display of power. Roberto Alomar returned. Cal Ripken extended a weeklong clinic on clutch hitting. Yet the Orioles came up short short yesterday in a game of back-and-forth.
For the first time this season the Orioles experienced the disappointment of a late loss. Unable to hold three leads against the bantamweight Kansas City Royals, they watched as a previously fail-safe bullpen paid heavily for its mistakes.
On Friday, Armando Benitez struck out five in 1 2/3 innings. In yesterday's home opener for the Royals, he absorbed a 6-5 loss after beginning the ninth inning with a walk to Bip Roberts. Able to take third base on a perfectly executed hit-and-run, Roberts easily tagged on Jeff King's one-out sacrifice fly.
"We didn't finish. Every time we scored, they scored. We never put them away," said Alan Mills, who pitched between Key and Benitez.
Mills' crime was to allow a 4-3 lead to slip away in the Royals' two-run eighth. King opened the inning with a home run. A subsequent walk to Joe Vitiello led to the go-ahead run when David Howard singled through Mills' legs with two outs.
"They had life all day," Mills said. "Bad pitches hurt us. We'd get on top, but we didn't take care of business."
Compounding manager Davey Johnson's frustration was the way solid performances by Key and Mills were marred. Normally a light-hitting bunch more comfortable playing inside the fences, the Royals tied the game 3-3 when third baseman Craig Paquette reached Key for a two-run homer in the sixth, one of Kansas City's four extra-base hits. Johnson gave Mills high marks except for his mistake pitch to King.
"It was a good game tough one to lose," said Johnson, who had watched his team open with four wins all by one or two runs before dropping its last two. "We just made a couple of pitching mistakes."
The Orioles grabbed leads of 1-0, 3-1 and 4-3. Each time the Royals answered in the same inning.
The bullpen endured its most traumatic day, surrendering three runs and five base runners in 2 2/3 innings. Benitez gave a confusing performance. With the winning run at third, he was penalized a ball for going to his mouth on the mound, and then surprised even King by attacking with his second-best pitch, a slider.
"I was expecting something else. The first pitch, the second pitch, the third pitch they were all sliders. Then he went to his mouth. The pitch I hit was a slider. And to be honest, it was ball four."
In a return match of Opening Day starters, Key faced Kevin Appier. Neither factored in the decision, which would typically work in the Orioles' favor. Instead, Benitez took a loss and rookie Jamie Walker, the loser on Opening Day, walked off with his first major-league win.
The Orioles took a quick lead after Anderson led off with a double, his first extra-base hit of the season, and took third on Alomar's sacrifice. Anderson successfully challenged right fielder Jermaine Dye's arm to score on Rafael Palmeiro's sacrifice fly. Anderson, limited by a cracked rib, was punished for the attempt as Royals catcher Tim Spehr landed on top of him on the tag.
For the fourth time in the past five games an Orioles starter couldn't clear the first inning unscathed. And Key was burned by a familiar face.
Someday the Orioles might figure out how to contain Jay Bell, but it hasn't happened yet. After going 5-for-8 with a home run among five consecutive hits in Baltimore, Bell ignited a first-inning rally with a two-out single, one of his three hits. King followed with a double that short-hopped the right-field wall, tying the game. The Orioles have allowed 10 first-inning runs.
"I don't know what it is because they've got an incredible team over there," said Bell, now 8-for-13 against the Orioles. "You look at their hitting, their bullpen, their defense. They've got a lot going for them. I've just been fortunate to get some pitches where they didn't want them."
Key had muzzled the Royals on Opening Day, but yesterday lacked the same command. He needed only 76 pitches to clear six innings last week, compared with 107 for six innings yesterday. "They made some adjustments on me. They were staying back more and willing to take pitches and hit the other way."
Key allowed six hits and consecutive walks to the bottom of the order during the first four innings, but stranded three runners in scoring position. He escaped the second inning when Roberts hit into a bases-loaded double play and he picked Bell off first to end the third.
The Orioles gave Key a 3-1 lead in the sixth, with Anderson again playing a central role. In his 20th at-bat of the season, the temporary designated hitter bounced his first home run off the top of the center-field wall. Besides hitting .571, Anderson has reached base in 16 of his past 22 plate appearances.
The lead vanished in the bottom of the inning when Paquette, fighting a 4-for-22 start, crushed a changeup for a two-run homer.
Playing their more diverse offense, the Orioles manufactured a 4-3 lead in the eighth thanks to Eric Davis. After taking a two-out walk, the cleanup hitter stole second on his own and went to third on a throwing error. Ripken, who has hit safely in every game for a .480 average, followed with a single for his second RBI.
"We're a little more athletic," Johnson said of the speed-based run. "That lets us create a little more pressure than in the past."
"There's not just one way to play the game," said Davis, who had 80 steals in 1986 and 23 last season with Cincinnati. "You can't sit around and wait for three-run homers to score. When they come, you put people away. But you can't put everything on that."
Down to their last out, the Orioles gained a 5-5 tie when Mike Bordick ended a 1-for-22 skid with an opposite-field double and gained a base on right fielder Dye's bobble. The error proved costly when Alomar's seventh-inning replacement, Jeff Reboulet, grounded a single to short.
Pub Date: 4/08/97