The Orioles again proved last night they are a changed team. Given three early runs, they rode another splendid performance by Mike Mussina and a nerveless bullpen plus a run-saving play from shortstop Mike Bordick to a 3-2 win over the Chicago White Sox.

It is not yet clubhouse chic to gush over this team's superiority to last year's wild-card entry that usually won on brute force. But in overcoming a solid performance by White Sox starter Danny Darwin, they rose to 12-4 while suggesting that offensive downturns no longer necessarily coincide with lengthy losing streaks.

Supported by Mussina's strong seven innings, Orioles starters have allowed two earned runs or fewer in eight of their last 10 outings, compiling a 2.77 ERA over that span. Mussina (3-1) has been a major part of it. In his last three outings, all wins, he has allowed three earned runs in 22 innings, a 1.22 ERA.

Of the Orioles' last four wins, three have been sculpted with three runs or less.

"It's a little too early to worry about numbers, but we're playing good," said manager Davey Johnson. "We're playing good defense. We're not beating ourselves. Good pitching goes a long way."

"I think this team is as good as last year's Braves team," said outfielder Jerome Walton, an oft-injured member of last year's National League champions. "Everybody talks about their pitching, and they've got five pretty good guys over there. But our guys are almost as good."

Once the Roberto Alomar watch ended, the Orioles devoted themselves to winning their seventh straight at Camden Yards, matching their best home start ever.

Darwin came into the game a hunch player's dream. He was 4-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 28 innings pitched in Camden Yards. Though beaten by Mussina last week, he had controlled the Orioles in a 106-pitch, nine-hit, complete-game performance. It was his first complete game since 1995.

That performance drew an assist from arctic conditions. Last night, the Orioles didn't need parkas in the on-deck circle or hand-warmers beneath their gloves. Three hitters into the first inning, Darwin found himself trailing. After four hitters, he'd surrendered two home runs and was down 3-0.

The Orioles broke a cold-weather funk thanks to Rafael Palmeiro's fifth home run and Eric Davis' first. Following a walk to Alomar, Palmeiro pulled his fifth home run into his favorite touch-down point above the right-field scoreboard inside the foul pole. Two pitches later, Davis returned from six days of inactivity with a homer into the left-field stands. The home run was Davis' first in 37 at-bats.

Then it was Mussina's time to deal. He shattered at least four bats, froze hitters and for a second straight game overwhelmed an old adversary.

Mussina again asserted himself against the White Sox power core, Frank Thomas. Mussina's longtime nemesis began the season with a .556 career average and six home runs against him. Mussina dealt Thomas an 0-for-3 night, including two strikeouts.

Thomas struck out only four times in 39 previous at-bats against Mussina. In the last week, Thomas is hitless in six at-bats against Mussina.

"He hit me pretty hard for a long time. I feel pretty good for getting him out," said Mussina.

There were plenty of reasons for Mussina to enjoy the moment.

Indirectly challenged by White Sox manager Terry Bevington after his April 17 1-0 win -- "Mussina usually pitches really good against us once a year, then we go out and get him," Bevington said -- Mussina allowed one run in seven innings.

"He just wanted to say something to motivate himself or motivate his team, whatever," said Mussina. "They can say whatever they want. It's part of the game."

Bevington saw a different Mussina from last Thursday. Both were outstanding while relying on a different facet of a repertoire.

"It looked like he was throwing a little harder tonight, but I could be wrong," Bevington said. "It looked like he had a better knuckle-curve the other night, but I might be wrong about that."

Make no mistake about this: the White Sox so far resemble a shell of their marketed label as big-armed intimidators. Thomas remains without a homer in 69 at-bats. Belle is hitting .208 with two homers.

"Teams struggle at times during the year. When Frank's struggling, they're going to struggle. When Frank and Albert are struggling, they're really, really going to struggle," Mussina said of the 5-14 White Sox. " You know there's going to be a time when they're scoring seven or eight times a game. I hope we're not playing them at that time."

With little assistance from either Thomas and Belle, the White Sox finally broke through in the sixth. They all but erased Mussina's lead before being stymied by Bordick's defensive heroics.

Ray Durham began the inning with a double. He took third on Thomas' groundout and scored on Belle's grounder to short. The run ended Mussina's run of 17 consecutive scoreless innings. (Jimmy Key had a similar run broken Sunday.)

But the bleeding didn't stop there. Harold Baines, Lyle Mouton and Dave Martinez produced three consecutive singles, scoring Baines and putting the tying run at third base with the Orioles' bullpen still inactive.

For a half-second the White Sox looked to have forced a tie when Ron Karkovice scorched a one-hopper to Bordick's right. However, he dove and speared the shot, raised to his knees and forced the fleet Martinez at second.

"If I can't drive in any runs I might as well stop a few from scoring," said Bordick, still looking for his first RBI after 56 at-bats.

"I got the win and Randy [Myers] got the save [his eighth], but his play won the game," said a thankful Mussina.

The Orioles escaped a nervous eighth inning when Armando Benitez came on and quickly walked two, Darren Lewis stole third and Jesse Orosco was summoned for a second straight game. A day after turning 40, Orosco got the game's most important out on one pitch when pinch hitter Chris Snopek popped to center field.

Despite their return to eight games over .500, the club was sobered by additional injuries to its outfield as B. J. Surhoff pulled a left groin muscle and Walton suffered what he described as a charley horse when running out a single.

Surhoff's injury was considered the most serious and Tony Tarasco could be recalled from Triple-A Rochester as early as today.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Chicago White Sox

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 7: 35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: White Sox's Jaime Navarro (1-1, 5.63) vs. Orioles' Rocky Coppinger (0-0, 0.00)

Tickets: 4,000 available

Back on track

Since giving up six earned runs in four innings in a losing 1997 debut, Mike Mussina has won three straight with strong efforts each time:

Date .. Opp. .. IP .. H .. ER .. Res.

4/11 .. Tex. .. 7 ... 3 .. 1 ... 9-3

4/17 .. Chi. .. 8 ... 3 .. 0 ... 1-0

4/22 .. Chi. .. 7 ... 7 .. 2 ... 3-2

Tot. .. .. . . 22 .. 13 .. 3

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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