Sox make quick work of Key, 4-1 Boston's 3-run first drives O's lefty to 5th loss in past 6 decisions; Avery wins 1st since April; Orioles strand nine, lose game to Yankees

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As slumps go, this one is a puzzler.

Orioles left-hander Jimmy Key had lost four of his past five decisions before last night, though a 2.87 ERA during that time suggested a lack of run support largely was to blame.

So, what to make of his latest start against the Boston Red Sox?

Four batters into the game, Key (12-6) was down by three runs. And all the Orioles could hope for was another ambush of Boston starter Steve Avery, which never materialized as the Boston left-hander won his first decision since April 22.

The offense deserted Key again, but he also created his own problems, going down to a 4-1 defeat before 47,712 at Camden Yards.

Key had 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 support wasn't coming last night, and neither was a third straight win for the Orioles, who saw their AL East lead shrivel to 4 1/2 games. The Orioles (57-34) had 10 hits, but stranded nine runners as Boston (41-52) won only its second game in the past six.

"They have some veteran hitters over there and they're not leading the league in hits for nothing," said manager Davey Johnson. "And we didn't do anything offensively. I kept thinking we'd get ignited all night. We had things going."

But so did Boston, and from the very beginning.

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 pitch down and away and sent it over the scoreboard in right for a 3-0 lead. Wil Cordero doubled off the wall in right, but Key retired the next two batters.

"I thought I made a decent pitch to Mike and he hit it out," Key said of his three-run changeup. "Those things will happen."

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 to center.

Key wasn't so lucky in the fourth. Shane Mack (three hits) blooped a two-out single to center, and Garciaparra -- Boston's only All-Star representative -- tripled off the center-field fence, just beyond Brady Anderson.

John Valentin flew out to end the inning, and Key stared at the ground as he walked off the mound, tossing his glove on the top step of the dugout and taking a seat.

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.

"I'm pretty proud of myself after the first inning," said Key, who allowed four runs and eight hits in 6 2/3 innings. "I kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win."

Johnson echoed the thought. "I think Jimmy is throwing decent," he said. "He's holding clubs to three and four runs. We should be right in the thick of it."

Boston would have tacked on another run after Key exited in the seventh if not for a sliding catch by Anderson on a sinking liner from Stanley. Not that Avery needed the cushion.

Not this time.

Avery, who came off the disabled list two weeks ago after being out with 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 leadoff hitter 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.

"He made good pitches when he had to," Johnson said of Avery, who allowed eight hits and one run in seven innings before Jim Corsi and Heathcliff Slocumb finished up. "We just couldn't get any momentum going."

Lenny Webster singled off Avery's glove leading off the fifth, but was wiped out 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. Right fielder Darren Bragg made a long run, and a lunging catch as he slid into foul territory.

Berroa rounded second before realizing he had been robbed. It was going to be that kind of night.

The kind where games are lost, and mysterious pitching slumps continue.

Pub Date: 7/17/97

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