DETROIT — DETROIT -- The bizarre finally reached the Orioles' dugout steps. After giving themselves so many reasons to win, the bullpen last night literally threw away a grand performance by starter Mike Mussina.
Following Jesse Orosco's poor warm-up act, Terry Mathews threw wildly during the game's most routine play -- an eighth-inning intentional walk -- to allow third baseman Travis Fryman to score the decisive run in a 6-5 win by the Detroit Tigers. The lapse completed the Tigers' three-run comeback that sent the Orioles to their most unusual, if not most depressing loss of a thankfully closing first half.
"I have no explanation why it happened," said Mathews, speaking for an entire clubhouse.
The eighth inning began with Mussina holding a 5-3 lead -- thanks to two Jeffrey Hammonds homers -- and riding another spectacular performance, including 14 strikeouts. But three pitches after he was lifted for Orosco, the lead evaporated on pinch hitter Phil Nevin's two-run homer.
Orosco allowed the next two runners to reach base and was yanked for Mathews. After moving both runners into scoring position with a wild pitch while Brian Johnson was trying to bunt, Mathews then did the unthinkable, flinging a soft toss over the head of catcher Lenny Webster. Fryman scored without a throw as both dugouts and a crowd of 37,074 at Tiger Stadium wondered what they'd seen.
"If I knew what happened, it wouldn't have happened," said Mathews, after amazingly allowing the winning run while striking out the side. "In a situation like that, you don't pitch. You just play catch with the catcher. That's why I have a difficult time doing it. There's no explanation for how or why it happened. When you don't let a guy put a ball in play and you wind up letting a run score, that's about as bad as it gets."
The loss was only the Orioles' third when leading after seven innings and will leave a bruise.
Making the defeat even more painful for the Orioles (55-29) was the fact the New York Yankees had pounded the Toronto Blue Jays and Pat Hentgen earlier in the day. So the Orioles' lead was cut to seven games.
Pitching coach Ray Miller apologized for distracting Orosco by ordering too many pickoffs with AL stolen base leader Brian Hunter at first base.
Orosco insisted that fingers be pointed at himself rather than Mathews. "I put him in a bind," Orosco said.
Mathews, embarrassed by his inability to hit the catcher on an intentional walk, made no attempt to slip the blame. The loss was devastating enough for all of them to share in the criticism.
The Orioles left much on the table. Hammonds homered twice and tripled. Mussina tied his career high in strikeouts, and the trio's 17 strikeouts represented a season high.
The Orioles hit three home runs against Tigers All-Star starter Justin Thompson -- two within three batters in the fifth inning, with Tony Tarasco preceding Hammonds' first of the game as the Orioles took a 3-2 lead. When Mussina left with a 5-3 lead, the Orioles' sixth win in seven games seemed safe with six outs to go.
Disturbed over a third win lost by a blown save, Mussina summarized the situation, "We didn't win the game. It doesn't matter what I did. It doesn't matter about anything. We didn't win."
Pressing for his 11th win in 18 starts, Mussina had thrown 131, 126 and 117 pitches in his previous three starts.
Manager Davey Johnson said he would not have allowed Mussina to begin the eighth if not for a bullpen worn down from Friday's marathon doubleheader.
"I don't want to push Moose too far. He's too valuable. He pitched a great game," Johnson said. "Jesse made a bad pitch to Nevin. He missed with a couple of pitches and threw one over the plate and boom. That's what happens when your 'pen's a little bit tired. You do things you really don't want to do."
Johnson would have preferred going to Armando Benitez in the eighth. However, Benitez was used twice in Friday's doubleheader.
Mussina started the eighth with 123 pitches but was gone immediately after allowing Hunter's leadoff single.
Mussina had owned the Tigers throughout his career. On May 16, 1993, he tied an Orioles record by striking out 14 against them. He shut them out last Sept. 7 for his 19th and final win of the season, advancing his career record against Detroit to 10-2 in 15 starts, including 4-1 in six starts at claustrophobic Tiger Stadium.
Even worse for the Tigers, Mussina entered last night's start on ++ his best roll in years. He had struck out 34 in his last four outings, compiled a 1.52 ERA in his last three starts and a 2.07 ERA in his previous eight.
This game offered little deviation.
"I still felt strong, as strong as I did in the second or third inning, probably better," Mussina said. "It's a matter of how they feel and what they see. They felt it was time."
Orosco entered and quickly became distracted by Hunter at first base. Aware of Hunter's 43 stolen bases, Miller repeatedly ordered him to keep the runner close. Meanwhile, Orosco fell behind Nevin 2-0 before feeding him a fastball that landed in the upper deck in right field.
The situation didn't end there. Orosco allowed a single to Fryman followed by a walk to Tony Clark, who had broken an 0-for-11 lifetime skid against Mussina with a first-inning home run.
With runners at first and second, Johnson summoned Mathews for a fourth consecutive day. His first wild pitch moved both runners into scoring position. Mathews then settled down and struck out pinch hitter Johnson and Raul Casanova, leaving first base open for left-handed-hitting Curtis Pride. Johnson wanted him intentionally walked to reach second baseman Jody Reed. The first pitch sailed wildly over Webster's head.
"I didn't run up to him afterward and ask him what happened. I didn't think that was appropriate," Johnson said. "He did a heck of a job getting the first two hitters. Then I signaled for a pitchout and there seemed to be a little confusion. I don't know what it was. That's a terrible way to lose a game."
Tigers manager Buddy Bell said it was a first for him, in a major-league career that dates to 1972. "I didn't see the ball until it went over the catcher's head," he said. "I've never seen something like that before, and you don't expect it."
The Orioles hurt themselves before the eighth. In the fourth, a two-out rally fizzled when Pete Incaviglia missed second base on Webster's single and was ruled out on appeal. The call was obvious enough that no argument was made.
"We played good enough to win for most of the game," Hammonds said. "We made some plays, but they scored more runs than we did. That's the way it goes. You pick it up and go on."
In a special section today, The Sun reviews what the Orioles have accomplished this season and looks ahead to the second half. Also included: comparisons of this year's team with some of the great Orioles clubs and remembering Orioles in All-Star Games past. (Section D)
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Tiger Stadium, Detroit
Time: 1:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Scott Erickson (11-3, 3.07) vs. Tigers' Brian Moehler (6-6, 4.07)
Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds made a powerful statement in six games last week:
Mike Mussina is headed for his fourth All-Star Game on a roll, having pitched to a 2.21 ERA in his past eight starts. But as the three no-decisions and one loss below attest, he also could be going to Cleveland 14-1 instead of 10-2:
Date Opp, IP, H, ER, K, Res.
5/30 Cle., 9, 1, 0, 10, W 3-0
6/4 N.Y., 6 1/3 , 5, 2, 2, ND
6/9 Chi., 9, 5, 2, 6, W 10-2
6/14 Atl., 6, 7, 3, 8, ND
6/20 Tor., 6 2/3 , 8, 2, 5, L 3-0
6/25 Mil., 9, 3, 1, 12, W 9-1
6/30 Phi., 8, 6, 1, 9, W 8-1
7/5 Det., 7, 6, 4, 14, ND
Tot., 61, 41, 15, 66
Pub Date: 7/06/97