As slumps go, this one has gotten a bit peculiar. Enough so that it may not even qualify as such.
Left-hander Jimmy Key had lost four of his past five decisions before last night. A 2.87 ERA during that time suggested a lack of run support largely was to blame.
What transpired in his latest start, a 4-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox, didn't bring any relief. Or enough runs.
Four batters into the game, Key was behind 3-0. And all the Orioles could do was hope for another ambush of Boston starter Steve Avery, which never materialized as the left-hander won his first decision since April 22.
The offense couldn't deliver a timely hit. Key couldn't avoid a big inning. And the Orioles couldn't keep their momentum, losing before 47,712 at Camden Yards.
Key (12-6) won his two previous starts against the Red Sox this year, allowing six earned runs in 11 2/3 innings. The Orioles totaled 25 runs in the two games.
That same offensive binge wasn't coming last night, and neither BTC was a third straight win for the Orioles (57-34), whose lead in the AL East shrank to 4 1/2 games.
The Orioles stranded nine runners, either hitting into a double play or tough luck, which was no way to answer the Red Sox's quick strike.
Rookie shortstop Nomar Garciaparra opened the game with a double to the fence in right-center field. One out later, Mo Vaughn walked and Mike Stanley reached for a changeup down and away and sent it over the scoreboard in right for a 3-0 lead. Wil Cordero doubled to right, but Key retired the next two batters.
Stanley should be familiar with Key, having been his catcher in New York. "I thought I made a decent pitch to Mike and he hit it out. Those things are going to happen," Key said.
So will the offense's allergic reaction to Key anytime he takes the mound these days. The Orioles have scored four runs in his last five defeats.
"Baseball is a marathon and I view my starts that way," said Key, who won his first eight decisions. "I've got 35 starts this year, hopefully, and early on I was getting a lot of run support, which made my job a lot easier. Right now, times are tough for me personally when I go out there. Those things are going to happen. You just roll with it. I try to deal in how I throw, not run support or whether we win or lose."
The Red Sox put two more runners on in the second inning without scoring, and Vaughn was stranded in the third after shattering his bat on a leadoff single.
Key wasn't so lucky in the fourth. Shane Mack (three hits) blooped a two-out single to center, and Garciaparra tripled to center, just beyond Brady Anderson.
John Valentin flew out to end the inning, and Key stared at the ground as he walked off, tossing his glove on the top step of the dugout and taking a seat. His margin for error was miniscule, the hole he had dug far too deep.
He retired the next seven batters before Mack singled leading off the seventh. A two-out walk to Vaughn brought Key's pitch count to 109 and Terry Mathews from the bullpen.
"They have some veteran hitters over there and they're not leading the league in hits for nothing. And we didn't do anything offensively," said manager Davey Johnson.
"I kept thinking we were going to get ignited all night. It seemed like we had things going."
They had 10 hits by the time the last out was recorded. And appropriately, it came with the tying run at the plate.
Down 4-1, B. J. Surhoff and Jeffrey Hammonds singled off Red Sox closer Heathcliff Slocumb to begin the ninth, giving the Orioles three chances to wipe the slate clean. Instead, they wiped out. Lenny Webster and pinch hitter Tony Tarasco popped up and Anderson grounded to first.
Boston would have tacked on more runs if not for a sliding catch by Anderson on a sinking liner from Stanley, the first batter that Mathews faced. Or a throw to the plate from Surhoff with two outs in the eighth that cut down Scott Hatteberg.
Not that Avery needed the cushion.
Not this time.
Avery (3-2), who came off the disabled list two weeks ago after a groin strain, was pummeled in his earlier start against the Orioles April 27, allowing nine hits and six runs in five innings. He averted a loss when Boston torched the Orioles bullpen in a 13-7 win.
Handed an early lead last night, he threatened to give it right back. After walking Anderson and getting Roberto Alomar to ground into a double play, Avery gave up consecutive singles to Geronimo Berroa and Rafael Palmeiro.
In need of the same clutch hitting that produced a two-game sweep of Toronto this week, the Orioles came up empty when Cal Ripken lined to Garciaparra, who took a couple steps in the hole and backhanded the ball.
Mike Bordick and Anderson singled to open the third, but Alomar flew out and Berroa hit into a double play.
This would be a familiar refrain.
Webster singled off Avery's glove leading off the fifth, but was nullified on Bordick's double play. Anderson legged out a double and Alomar walked to extend the inning. Berroa then lifted a fly ball to right that sliced toward the line, away from Darren Bragg, but not far enough. Bragg concluded his long run with a lunging catch as he slid into foul territory.
"That would have given us at least two runs," Johnson said. "That ball would have rattled around down there forever. I thought for sure it was in there. That really changes the complexion."
Berroa rounded second before realizing he had been robbed. It was going to be that kind of night.
Avery was forced out of the game in the eighth after a leadoff walk to Anderson and a double to right by Alomar. He threw 107 pitches, walked three and struck out one, and the Orioles collected eight hits off him.
"Tonight was mainly fastballs and changeups," he said. "I felt good out there, but I didn't have my best stuff. It was really hot."
Jim Corsi replaced Avery, and Berroa ran the count full before Cordero made a sliding catch of his liner in left, scoring Anderson. Palmeiro struck out looking and Ripken lined back to the mound, where Corsi made a self-defense grab about neck high.
There were plenty of chances but little to show for them. With Key pitching, can it be any other way?
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Red Sox's Aaron Sele (10-7, 5.05) vs. O's Scott Erickson (11-5, 3.84)
Tickets: About 200 remain
First innings have been a pain for Orioles pitchers six times in the past two weeks, all eventual losses. A look:
Date, Vs., Pitcher, R*, H*, Res
7-16, Bos, Key, 3, 3, L, 4-1
7-13, Mil, Mussina, 2, 2, L, 6-4
7-12, Mil, Erickson, 1, 4, L, 3-2
7-11, Mil, Key, 1, 2, L, 3-1
7-6, Det, Erickson, 5, 3, L 14-9
7-5, Det, Mussina, 2, 2, L, 6-5
* In first inning
Pub Date: 7/17/97