The Orioles are -- quite literally -- limping toward the All-Star break.
Left-hander Jimmy Key was forced out of last night's game after four innings with a hamstring strain and the Toronto Blue Jays took advantage of his discomfort and early departure to score a 5-2 victory before 47,687 and move to the threshold of a deflating four-game sweep at Camden Yards.
The Blue Jays have sent the Orioles off on their first three-game losing streak since July 22-26 of last year, when they dropped five straight at home to Minnesota and Cleveland.
Another day, another dismal performance at the plate. The slumping Orioles' batting order has scored just three times in three games, and has never held a lead in the series. The club, the last in the majors to lose three in a row, is expected to welcome newly acquired Geronimo Berroa to the lineup today, and can only hope he will be the catalyst for a dramatic offensive turnaround.
In the meantime, the Orioles can wait to see how their winningest pitcher bounces back from what was described by the club's medical staff as a slight hamstring strain. He is listed as day-to-day and, at this point, is expected to make his next scheduled start.
"I'm not concerned about our lineup," manager Davey Johnson said after the sixth loss in 10 games, four by shutout. "Tomorrow's another day. The only thing I'm concerned about is Jimmy Key's left hamstring. That was a real scare.
"The good news is, it's just a mild thing. It's his push-off leg. He wanted to continue, but I wasn't going to let him continue. We'll see what happens the next three or four days. If he has any discomfort, I'll skip him."
The scouting report on Key is fairly straightforward. If he keeps the ball down and hits his spots, it is very difficult to string together enough hits to score. If he elevates the ball in the strike zone, however, the number of swings required to get from home plate to home plate can drop dramatically.
That was the case in the early innings last night, before it became obvious that his left leg was bothering him. Key allowed fly balls to three of the first four batters -- not a promising sign -- then allowed a pair of long fly balls in the third inning that landed on the flag court beyond right field.
Blue Jays shortstop Alex Gonzalez led off the inning with a high fly down the right-field line that just cleared the out-of-town scoreboard to give the Blue Jays the lead. It was one of those cozy Camden Yards home runs, the kind that make Oriole Park a very hostile place to pitch, but Key has managed to conquer the close quarters on his way to a terrific first-half performance.
Toronto right fielder Orlando Merced didn't need the architectural assistance. He came up two outs later and launched one that was never in doubt, then drove in another run two innings later with a sacrifice fly to give the Blue Jays a 3-1 lead.
It became apparent in the fourth inning that something was not right. Key had grimaced after releasing a pitch in the third inning. He looked pained again in the fourth and grabbed at his left hamstring after a pitch to Benito Santiago sailed high and inside.
That brought Johnson to the mound, but Key threw one practice pitch and remained in the game. He completed the walk to Santiago, then got Gonzalez on a flyout to center to end the inning.
Key would not return for the fifth. Rule 5 rookie Mike Johnson began to warm up as soon as it became apparent that Key was hurting, and came on in relief for only his third appearance since May 31.
"I'll be all right," Key said. "It's a small hindrance, something that Davey decided that there was no sense in risking tonight. Hopefully, it'll be gone in a few days and I'll get one more start before the All-Star break. I don't think I'll miss a start, but we'll have to wait and see."
Though he gave up just the two runs on three hits, he was charged with the loss and his record fell to 11-4. There was a time this year when a two-run deficit would have meant almost nothing, but the once resourceful and resilient Orioles lineup struggled again -- this time against Woody Williams and a parade of Toronto relievers. In so doing, they missed a chance to pad their 6 1/2 -game lead over New York, which lost to Cleveland earlier in the day.
"We've played well, but we just haven't gotten the hits we needed," Key said. "It's tough to go through a whole season without losing three games in a row. We held that off for a long time, but it finally happened. You're probably not going to play .700 ball all season."
The Orioles (50-26) have struggled at the plate regardless of who might be on the mound. They were shut out in the opener by Roger Clemens and two Blue Jays relievers on Thursday and they were held hitless into the fifth by lesser-known Robert Person on Friday.
Williams joined in the fun, too, until B. J. Surhoff homered off the foul pole in right field in the fourth and Mike Bordick launched the ball into the left-field seats with one out in the fifth.
Surhoff has been struggling. He came into the game with just six hits in his previous 45 at-bats, but the home run was his 11th of the season and increased his RBI total to 49, which ranks second on the club behind Rafael Palmeiro.
Bordick hasn't exactly been knocking the cover off the ball either. He had three hits in his previous 20 at-bats when he went deep for the third time this season and the first time since May 31.
If the two home runs were supposed to jump start the bedraggled Orioles offense, someone neglected to relay that to the dugout. Williams (3-7), whose previous seven starts had resulted in six Blue Jays losses, got into further trouble in the fifth when Merced lost a Roberto Alomar fly ball in the twilight for a double and Rafael Palmeiro walked. But Cal Ripken lined out to center to end the threat with the Orioles still trailing by a run.
Williams lasted just five innings, but he allowed just two runs on five hits before giving way to reliever Paul Quantrill, who joined Paul Spoljaric and Mike Timlin to shut out the Orioles on three hits the rest of the way.
Johnson gave up a run in the fifth inning on Merced's sacrifice fly and left the game after No. 9 hitter Carlos Garcia hit one into the left-field bleachers in the seventh for the third Blue Jays' home run and Garcia's first of the year.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1: 35 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Blue Jays' Juan Guzman (3-5, 4.87) vs. O's Shawn Boskie (4-3, 6.23)
.' Tickets: Fewer than 300 remain
Anatomy of slump
A look at the offensive woes of the Orioles over the past 10 games, which has included six losses and four shutout defeats:
Batting average ............. .232
Slugging pct. .................336
Runs .......................... 28
Doubles ....................... 11
Triples ........................ 0
Home runs ...................... 8
Runners left in scoring pos. .. 30
Strikeouts .................... 64
Player ........... H-AB ... Avg.
Tony Tarasco ..... 1-13 ... .077
Rafael Palmeiro .. 5-41 ... .122
B. J. Surhoff .... 5-35 ... .143
Mike Bordick ..... 7-33 ... .212
Lenny Webster .... 6-28 ... .214
Pub Date: 6/29/97