The Orioles' batting order began yesterday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays with a new look. But by the end of the afternoon, a disturbing sameness had returned.
A first-time lineup including designated hitter Geronimo Berroa too closely resembled the ineffective ones that recently had preceded it as the Blue Jays used a 3-2 win to complete a four-game sweep before 47,763 at Camden Yards. The AL standings insist the Orioles are still in first place. The past week confirms serious slippage.
The largest four-game crowd in Orioles history witnessed four consecutive tired performances. The loss was the Orioles' fifth in seven games and seventh in 11 games. They have been shut out four times during the span and scored five runs in the seven losses.
The Orioles batted .186 over the weekend, scored five times and led the league's least productive offense for a total of four innings.
"It looks like they're grinding," said manager Davey Johnson. "This last road trip might be getting to us a little bit. We've had a rough schedule."
An attack that once exploited the slightest opening now finds itself flailing against one-game wonders and major-league first-timers. Winners this weekend, Robert Person, Woody Williams and Kelvim Escobar, combined to allow the Orioles 10 hits and four earned runs in 17 innings.
Acquired on Friday, Berroa arrived in time for Johnson to pencil him into the No. 3 hole as designated hitter. Berroa quickly became infected with whatever ails his new teammates as he suffered an 0-for-5 performance with three strikeouts, failing to advance any of six base runners he encountered. His day ended when he pushed Otis Nixon to the center-field warning track for the game's final out with a man on first.
Berroa didn't reach Baltimore until 2: 30 a.m. yesterday and took his first at-bat 11 hours later. "The first game was difficult," Berroa said, "but I haven't had too many 0-for-5 games this year. I'll have more good games than 0-for-5 games."
The four-game sweep was the first of the Orioles at home since last July 11-14 by the New York Yankees. That wipeout changed the balance of power within the AL East last year. This one only chopped their lead over the Yankees to 5 1/2 games -- their smallest since May 20 -- and asked questions that wouldn't have been pondered even two weeks ago.
"We're having a little funk," Johnson said. "Two runs a game that's hard to take. They're doing what we've been doing all year long."
Or at least up until the past two weeks. The Orioles are pressing and they show it. Two days after getting Berroa, general manager Pat Gillick devoted yesterday to attempting to firm up a deal for Boston Red Sox left fielder Wil Cordero, on the trading block after allegedly assaulting his wife earlier this month.
Rafael Palmeiro has two RBIs in his past 14 games and may soon receive a day off. Now hitting .256 after going 0-for-3 yesterday, his average hasn't been this low this late since August 1992.
B. J. Surhoff, the season's most consistent run producer, managed one of the Orioles' five hits but is hitting only .154 in his past 15 games.
Brady Anderson tried to jump-start yesterday's attack but ended the day still fighting a 5-for-28 (.179) slump in his past seven games.
"When the team starts to lose a little bit, you try to make a bigger contribution," acknowledged Cal Ripken, stuck on 10 home runs for 24 games. "Sometimes you start to swing outside your means. Some of this, you can talk your way into it."
Ripken did his best to win the game with his glove, making two spectacular stop-and-throw plays in the first five innings. However, he also was one of four hitters in the middle of the lineup who combined to get only one ball out of the infield.
"You go up against probably one of the best teams in baseball, and we played the best baseball we've played all year as far as getting key hits, starting pitching and the bullpen," said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who may have slipped a firing thanks to the sweep. "We just played a good brand of baseball this weekend and came out with four wins."
The series opened with Roger Clemens doing the job. It ended with an out-of-shape starter and a Double-A call-up piling on the frustration.
Riding a three-game losing streak, Juan Guzman made his first start since May 28, the day he broke his right thumb fielding a bunt against the Yankees. Last month he had left a start after two hitters because of arm fatigue.
The Orioles grabbed their first lead of the series in the first inning when Anderson worked a walk against Guzman. (Anderson began the game with a career .044 average against the Blue Jays' right-hander.) The center fielder took second base on Roberto Alomar's sacrifice, stole third on the slow-to-home Guzman and scored when catcher Charlie O'Brien's throw sailed into left field.
Working on a 50-pitch limit, Guzman went 56, allowing one hit in three innings. But what might have been a throwaway game for Gaston instead became an unlikely pitching duel between Escobar and Orioles starter Shawn Boskie.
Summoned from Double-A Knoxville, Escobar (1-0) had barely beaten Berroa into town Saturday night but delivered 4 1/3 strong innings in his major-league debut. He allowed two hits and one run and escaped a harrowing fourth inning.
Escobar, who turned 21 in April, walked the first two hitters he faced, Surhoff and Tony Tarasco, to begin the fourth. Asked to bunt, catcher Tim Laker botched one attempt before lining a drive to center field. Reading the play correctly, Surhoff retreated to tag but failed to advance after slipping. Mike Bordick followed with a single into left-center field that moved both runners two bases for a 2-1 lead.
However, with a chance to break out, the Orioles instead left Tarasco at third when Anderson struck out, Alomar walked to load the bases and Berroa struck out on a 2-2 pitch low and inside.
"Those are the things we were executing early, even when you're struggling," Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Boskie continues to walk a tightrope for a club that desperately seeks to better its rotation. His five innings against Milwaukee last Tuesday gave him his first win this season as a starter but did little for his job security except to bring him to yesterday.
Again, he did nothing to hurt himself, allowing five hits and one earned run in a season-high seven innings.
"I was aware of what was going on before, but that's part of being a professional," he said. "You're only as good as your last game. I seem to pitch better when I'm a little uncomfortable about what's going on."
To be an Orioles starter these days is to require perfection. Boskie came up short in the seventh when Shawn Green slashed a one-out triple, then scored on O'Brien's sacrifice fly.
Armando Benitez (0-3) took over in the eighth and relapsed, allowing a leadoff hit to No. 9 batter Carlos Garcia and three walks. Joe Carter's sacrifice fly -- the Blue Jays scored all three runs on fly balls -- scored Garcia for a 3-2 lead. Able to manufacture only three base runners the last five innings, the Orioles went meekly.
"We haven't had too many down periods up to this point," Ripken said. "I'd have to say it's just a down period a slow period. The best thing that we can do is minimize the down period.
"No matter how great your offense, you're going to have team slumps as well as individual slumps. And as time passes you become more concerned about it because we've been playing so well. I look at it as a slow period -- a team slump -- and you just try to get through it."
A look at how Orioles hitters fared in the four-game sweep by the Blue Jays, a series in which the Orioles scored five runs, doubled three times and homered twice:
Player ...... Avg. .. H-AB .. EB* .. SO
Alomar ..... .385 ... 5-13 ... 1 .... 4
Bordick .... .333 ... 4-12 ... 1 .... 3
Tarasco .... .333 ... 1-3 .... 1 .... 1
Hammonds ... .273 ... 3-11 ... 1 .... 2
Ripken ..... .188 ... 3-16 ... 0 .... 1
Anderson ... .176 ... 3-17 ... 0 .... 5
Surhoff .... .167 ... 2-12 ... 1 .... 3
Dellucci ... .125 ... 1-8 .... 0 .... 0
Webster .... .125 ... 1-8 .... 0 .... 1
Palmeiro ... .071 ... 1-14 ... 0 .... 1
Berroa ..... .000 ... 0-5 .... 0 .... 3
Incaviglia.. .000 ... 0-5 .... 0 .... 3
Laker ...... .000 ... 0-4 .... 0 .... 1
Totals ..... .186 .. 24-128 .. 5 ... 28
* -- Extra-base hits
Opponent: Philadelphia Phillies
Site: Oriole Park
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Phillies' Calvin Maduro (3-6, 6.64) vs. O's Mike Mussina (9-2, 3.29)
Tickets: Fewer than 300
Pub Date: 6/30/97