OAKLAND, Calif. -- It has become a monotonous game. Hand Jimmy Key the ball and pick a way to win.
Having convinced the American League he is again healthy, Key again steered the Orioles to a matter-of-fact win last night, holding the Oakland Athletics into the eighth inning as his club rolled to a 5-1 win before 11,352 at Oakland Coliseum. The win enabled Key to become the major leagues' first seven-game winner and left him undefeated through eight starts.
The only difference between last night's win and his previous six was Key's supporting star.
On display for others as much as for Orioles general manager Pat Gillick and assistant Kevin Malone, right fielder Tony Tarasco ripped into A's starting pitcher Steve Karsay (0-4) for a two-out, three-run home run to highlight the Orioles' four-run fourth inning. The possible exchange for Philadelphia Phillies masher Darren Daulton, Tarasco reminded anyone interested that he can give the look of an everyday player.
"I've been traded twice, and I've learned that you're always playing for other people's eyes," Tarasco said. "You want to be a part of a team a whole year. I still have a chance to be long-term with a team. But one step at a time. I can still prove I can be an impact player."
The turning point for Tarasco came last Thursday, when he had two hits against Seattle Mariners left-handed intimidator Randy Johnson.
"I went in to Davey [Johnson] the night before and told him to let me play against Randy. I told him I wanted Randy. I wanted to kill the theory I can't hit against left-handers," Tarasco said.
Just like Key, the former New York Yankee, wants to kill the
theory that he's pitching on borrowed time and a patchwork left shoulder.
"I was healthy those first two years in New York, then my arm problems happened. I'm healthy now. I've always said when I'm healthy I can pitch," Key said. "I've proved that over my career. As long as I don't have to worry about my arm, I can throw between starts, get my control and that's how I pitch."
Here's how Key pitched last night. He used 110 pitches in 7 2/3 innings. He walked no one and struck out no one. In less than two months, the perfect relationship has formed -- a pitcher who trusts his defense and a defense that loves its pitcher.
"People behind him play. They like to play behind him, too," said Johnson, the Orioles' manager. "There's always a lot of action. He's a fielder's dream. He's a lot like Mike Cuellar. He gets a lot of ground balls to the infield. He keeps you in the action."
The Orioles, who have mistreated mediocre clubs, again caught a team at the right time. The A's were coming off a calamitous road trip in which they lost 10 of 13, including two of three in Baltimore and their last five. Their team ERA skyrocketed from 4.78 to 5.70 on the trip and their batting average fell from .257 to .247. As assistant general manager Billy Beane lamented, "The problems are obvious. The solutions aren't."
Already Key has put together scoreless streaks of 14 and 16 innings. The longer rush ended in last night's fourth inning when Jose Canseco doubled home Rafael Bournigal. Small matter. The A's never brought the tying run to the plate against Key once he received support. Key retired the first 10 hitters he faced, coaxed 13 ground ball outs and enjoyed flawless support. Roberto Alomar presented him his last out with a diving stop and rolling flip of the ball for a fielder's choice.
"For the most part I've stayed out of big innings. That's why we've won seven games," Key said. "The American League is a big-inning league. You can get beat in one inning. I've been able to avoid that."
At 7-0, Key matched the second-best start by a starting pitcher in franchise history. Ben McDonald also won his first seven decisions in 1994. Only Dave McNally, who won his first 15 in 1969, remains ahead of Key.
"He's on a big wave right now," Karsay said. "And he's riding it as long as he can. He's coming in from Hawaii."
The A's didn't manage their first base runner until the Orioles led 4-0. And aside from their lone run in the fourth, the A's didn't threaten Key before he handed the lead over to Armando Benitez in the eighth. Benitez got out of the eighth inning with one pitch and was allowed to complete the ninth as well for his third save. The win moved the Orioles to 24-11 and four games ahead of second-place New York.
After remaining in control for three innings, Karsay spun out in the fourth vs. the Orioles' coldest, hottest and most available hitters. With one out, Rafael Palmeiro interrupted a 2-for-29 slump with a double to right field. Palmeiro, who had seen his average plummet from .300 to .250 the last two weeks, endured an 0-for-20 drought before singling last Friday. Cal Ripken's groundout left Palmeiro at second, but B. J. Surhoff followed up Sunday's six-RBI game by doubling to right-center for a 1-0 lead. Interestingly, Surhoff needed a double to hit for the cycle on Sunday.
Surhoff entered last night's game hitting .412 over his last 18 games, bumping his average from .172 to .340. Chris Hoiles extended the inning when he was hit by a pitch for the sixth time this year. Clearly peeved, he glared at Karsay before taking his base. At that point, the Orioles had been hit twice as often (16) this season as their opponents. (Hoiles got hit a second time later in the game.)
Tarasco then shattered the game on the next pitch with a towering shot into the right-center-field bleachers. Impressed, he momentarily stood at the plate to shout at his game-busting blast. Hoiles likewise verbally whipped Karsay as he scored.
Tarasco now finds himself much in demand. The Orioles are spread thin with right fielders, especially against right-handed pitching. Eric Davis, who returned last night after four games off, is still protecting a sore hamstring. Jerome Walton spent the day being examined in Alabama. Jeffrey Hammonds is still waiting for his abdominal muscles to let him play.
"Baseball changes like the wind. I've got to try to check myself," Tarasco said. "Come around in a week and Jerome could be feeling better and he'd be back in there. I've got to try and take advantage of things when I can."
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Oakland (Calif.) Coliseum
Time: 3: 15 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (4-1, 3.57) vs. A's Mike Mohler (0-4, 5.93) Pub Date: 5/13/97