The deeds of the three top pitchers in the Orioles' starting rotation have been well-chronicled. Jimmy Key, Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson are a combined 20-2 and have gotten a great deal of the credit for the club's terrific start.
No. 4 starter Scott Kamieniecki has been happy to play a supporting role, but last night he stepped up with a performance fit for an ace, giving up just four hits over 7 2/3 innings as the Orioles scored a 4-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers in the first game of a brief two-game homestand at Camden Yards.
The largest regular-season crowd in the history of Oriole Park (48,003) watched Kamieniecki carry a one-hit shutout through seven innings. The Tigers struck for three quick runs to knock him out of the game in the eighth, but reliever Jesse Orosco got out of the inning and Randy Myers closed out the ninth to reassume a share of the American League lead with 14 saves.
The victory, combined with a loss by the second-place New York Yankees, increased the Orioles' AL East lead to five games, the largest division lead by an Orioles club since July 23, 1989, when the surprising "Why Not?" Orioles led the East by six games.
"I'm real happy with the way these guys have been playing," manager Davey Johnson said. "We've been banged up all year, but the pitching has been great, the defense has been great and the bullpen has been outstanding."
The offense has been pretty good, too, especially in the clutch. Rafael Palmeiro's two-out, two-run single capped a four-run fifth inning that was enough to give the Orioles their fourth consecutive victory and seventh in nine games. It was the second game in a row in which Palmeiro contributed a decisive two-run single.
Kamieniecki improved to 3-2, but that does not reflect the true value of his contribution. Better to look at his solid 3.49 ERA and the club's 5-4 record in his starts after he stepped in to fill a big hole when right-hander Rocky Coppinger came up injured in April.
Orioles general manager Pat Gillick said this week that he still would like to add one more starting pitcher to complete the rotation, but he really would have his work cut out for him if Kamieniecki had not come up so big.
"He has pitched great," Johnson said. "He has been going, for the most part, against the other team's second starter and he has kept us in ballgames. He really has given us a shot in the arm."
Kamieniecki hasn't exactly been pitching in good luck. He has not given up more than four runs in any of his nine starts and has given up two runs or fewer four times, but was winless in his first three starts of May. He has, however, kept the Orioles close in every game he has pitched.
"That's the name of the game," he said. "Keep the team in the game. I think I've been throwing the ball pretty well."
The club has averaged 4.5 runs in the nine games that Kamieniecki has started, but 12 of those runs were concentrated in his April 30 victory over Minnesota, reducing the Orioles' scoring average to about three runs per game for the rest of his 1997 appearances.
He didn't figure to have an easy time last night anyway. The Tigers were expected to be the doormat of the division, but have started to play some respectable baseball, coming into last night's game riding a three-game winning streak that had moved them two games ahead of last-place Boston.
"Their pitching is better and some of their young players are playing with a lot of confidence," Johnson said before the game.
This is the club that set a dubious record last year with the highest team ERA in American League history (6.38), but the Tigers' pitching staff apparently has come a long way in a short time. The Detroit staff entered the game ranked sixth in the league with a 4.56 team ERA and starter Omar Olivares is one of the reasons, though he also has pitched in some tough luck.
Olivares came into the game with a 2-2 record and a 3.18 ERA, but he had given up three runs or fewer in each of his previous five starts (2.02 ERA) and somehow came away with just one victory.
He found himself in similar straits again last night, carrying a shutout through four innings only to protect a scoreless tie. The Orioles finally broke through for four runs in the fifth to drive him out.
It was another hard-luck performance. Olivares contributed to his own demise with a leadoff walk to Chris Hoiles, but the Orioles did not hit the ball hard until Palmeiro stroked the two-out, two-run single that completed the rally.
The Orioles had loaded the bases with one out when Mike Bordick poked a ground ball single through the left side of the infield and Olivares grazed Brady Anderson with a fastball. Roberto Alomar drove in the first run with an infield hit and Eric Davis brought home Bordick with a sacrifice fly before Palmeiro extended his hitting streak to nine games with a line single to right.
The hit scored Anderson and Alomar, but the inning ended when Palmeiro allowed himself to be caught in a rundown to make sure the throw from the outfield did not go through to the plate.
That was it for Olivares, who allowed four runs on five hits over five innings. He was replaced by reliever A. J. Sager to start the Orioles' sixth. Kamieniecki carried his one-hitter into the eighth before Brian Hunter singled home the first Tigers' run and Damion Easley made it a one-run game with a long home run to center.
Orosco came on to strike out Phil Nevin to end that inning and Myers closed out the ninth to join Yankees closer Mariano Rivera atop the league save rankings.
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Oriole Park
Time: 3: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Tigers' Justin Thompson (4-2, 3.63) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (7-1, 2.65)
Tickets: Several hundred remain
Pub Date: 5/21/97