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BOSTON -- Jimmy Key went to the mound yesterday afternoon with absolutely nothing. He was the baby-faced kid in a liquor store without ID. He was the guy at the checkout line who had left his wallet at home.

But he was still Jimmy Key.

Able to scrounge a couple of nickels' worth of pitches to go with his vault of experience, Key turned a potential nightmare into an 11-1 win over the Boston Red Sox before a Fenway Park crowd of 32,290. Key may have arrived with nothing, but the Orioles left with their seventh win in eight games and an 11-3 record, tied for the second-best start in their history.

Key, who had walked four in his first three starts, tied a career high with six walks in 5 2/3 innings and nearly came undone during perilous second and third innings. Instead, he escaped two bases-loaded situations, then waited for his offense to pick apart the Red Sox in a six-run fourth inning.

"That hasn't happened in a long time," said Key, 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA. "I struggled with my control all day and that doesn't happen a lot. For a while, I was having a hard time just throwing strikes."

But the Orioles have quickly learned that Key at less than his best is still mighty good. "Jimmy struggled. Today was tough for him. There really wasn't a whole lot I could do to help him," catcher Chris Hoiles said. "But he kept his composure, made a couple of pitches when he had to and kept us in the game. A lot of guys would have panicked."

Sure, the Orioles won by double digits over a bunch that helped with three errors. But when the game still mattered, Key somehow kept the Red Sox scoreless despite needing 72 pitches to escape the first three innings.

By comparison, Key needed only 76 pitches to coast through six innings Opening Day and 122 to pitch a complete-game shutout eight days ago.

"The way the first three innings went, I thought we were going to get killed," said manager Davey Johnson, who went to his bullpen with two outs in the sixth and the score 8-1.

Key admitted being thrown out of sorts by Friday and Saturday's rainouts that left him pitching on six days' rest. Worse, Key hadn't thrown with purpose for four days. Pitching coach Ray Miller had suggested he briefly throw from the mound Saturday morning but Key declined.

"I think if I'm in the same situation again, I'll take his advice," Key said.

After an uneventful first inning, Key loaded the bases on a single and two walks in the second before getting Shane Mack to fly out.

In the third, the Red Sox had four base runners but did not score because of Key's knack for helping himself. Nomar Garciaparra led off with a single, but Key immediately picked off the rookie shortstop, who broke too early on a steal attempt. With two outs, Mo Vaughn singled and Mike Stanley and Tim Naehring walked, loading the bases again and bringing Miller to the mound. Facing the most important batter of the game, Key went to a full count against Wil Cordero before freezing him with a fastball under his hands.

"I was lucky enough to make two pitches when I had to," Key said of his escapes against Mack and Cordero.

"That was a huge pitch," Miller said of Key's jamming Cordero. "That's what makes this guy so tough. He's the kind of pitcher who can win when he's at less than his best. He doesn't buckle."

The Red Sox soon did. Waiting until the fourth inning to begin their 15-hit pounding, the Orioles batted around against starter Tom Gordon (1-2).

The Red Sox betrayed Gordon when first baseman Vaughn allowed Cal Ripken's leadoff grounder to roll through his legs. B. J. Surhoff began a three-hit day with a swinging bunt single. The Orioles then took a 2-0 lead when Jeffrey Hammonds banged a double off the center-field wall.

Starting his fourth consecutive game in place of injured Eric Davis, Jerome Walton began a memorable day by singling home Hammonds. Walton would finish with three singles and a walk, extending his streak of consecutive hits to seven.

Hoiles, Key's personal enforcer, followed with the inning's fourth consecutive hit, putting runners at first and second. Here, the Red Sox gave the Orioles another out when Gordon walked No. 9 hitter Mike Bordick as he attempted to sacrifice. The Orioles received a third gift when Walton strayed too far from second but escaped when catcher Bill Haselman's pickoff sailed wide. A fielder's choice and Rafael Palmeiro's two-out, two-run double accounted for three more runs.

Key worked better with a cushion. He retired eight of the next nine hitters he faced before Mack chased him with a two-out RBI single in the sixth.

"It helped not having to worry about giving up one or two runs," Key said. "A game like this makes up for those times you pitch well but the other guy pitches better and you lose 1-0 or 2-1."

The Orioles continue to receive help from their entire roster. Hoiles homered in the ninth inning to finish a three-hit game. In Key's four starts, Hoiles has hit both his home runs and is 8-for-16. The play of Hammonds, hitting .239 but with greater power, has made an issue of where Brady Anderson will be positioned once his sore ribs allow him to discard his DH role. Surhoff entered the game with one RBI in 40 at-bats, but had a two-run double in the sixth.

Every starter except second baseman Roberto Alomar hit safely. The Orioles finished with five extra-base hits against six Red Sox pitchers. They began the game with only six extra-base hits in their last four games.

"You go around this clubhouse and everybody has done something to help us win. That's why we're 11-3," Key said.

Orioles today

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Fenway Park, Boston

Time: 11: 05 a.m.

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (2-0, 3.86) vs. Red Sox's Aaron Sele (2-0, 3.00)

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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