ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Orioles were waiting for the dam to break and for all of those runs that had been bottled up in their month-long slump to come cascading down on the Texas Rangers.
It didn't happen quite that way, but to left-hander Jimmy Key, five runs probably looked like a flood.
Key gave up just one run on six hits over six innings and the struggling offense finally stepped up to carry him to a 5-1 win over the Rangers last night before 35,842 at The Ballpark in Arlington.
About time. The Orioles had rushed to the front of the American League East largely on the strength of their top three starting pitchers, who combined to go 28-4 through the first 2 1/2 months of the season, but the rotation had stalled since then and the Big Three -- Key, Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson -- had not recorded a victory in the previous 18 days.
"Jimmy needed a win," manager Davey Johnson said. "This ballclub needed to get a win. We need our main guys to start winning."
The pitching drought and the concurrent offensive slump have combined to cut deeply into the Orioles' once-large division lead, which remained at 3 1/2 games after the second-place New York Yankees defeated the Brewers last night in the finale of a four-game series in Milwaukee. The frustration mounted during the just-completed 3-7 homestand, but the Orioles seemed to respond to a change of scenery.
"We went through a cold spell," Johnson said, "but the last time I looked, we still had the best record in the American League. I think some people had forgotten that."
Johnson packed the offensive lineup with right-handed hitters against Texas left-hander Darren Oliver (6-10), so who should deliver the big blow but one of the two left-handed hitters left in the batting order.
Rafael Palmeiro's two-run homer in the sixth inning was only the fourth hit of the game for the Orioles, but Jeffrey Hammonds and Brady Anderson added run-scoring hits in the late innings and Key finally was rewarded with his 13th victory of the year.
Key (13-6) has been pitching without any offensive backup for much of the past five weeks. He entered last night's game with one victory in his previous six starts and had gotten more than two runs just once in that span -- a 10-1 victory on July 3 that was the last time any one of the Orioles' top three starters had gotten a win.
That also was the only victory that Key had registered since running his record to an impressive 11-1 on June 13, but he has not pitched badly. His ERA in the six starts leading up to last night's game was 3.32, which may have been well above his 2.72 overall ERA but still would be low enough to rank among the AL leaders.
"I threw better," Key said after dealing Texas its sixth loss in eight games. "I still had a [bad] first inning, but after that I thought I threw real well. I think that's the best I've thrown since the first half. I just felt like I had a lot better feel on the ball. It's probably more mental than physical. Tonight, when I warmed up, I felt a lot better. Hopefully, I'll be able to keep it for another 15 starts or so."
Johnson never seemed concerned about Key. Teammate Scott Erickson has struggled the past couple of weeks, but Key never pitched badly. If he had gotten the same run support as earlier in the season, he might be leading the league in victories.
"Sometimes you go through periods where things aren't so good and sometimes it comes together," Johnson said. "He has pitched some good ballgames, but our offense has not generated runs.
"If he holds them to 3.3 runs, I'll take that every day. I gotta figure we can score four."
Right now, that's not a fair assumption. The Orioles are averaging nearly five runs per game during the four-week slump, but the attack has been sporadic. Their scoring average has been pumped up by a handful of big offensive outbursts, but they have been on the wrong end of too many close, low-scoring games.
Key has been the biggest victim. In his last five losses, the Orioles scored a total of four runs, but he also was one of the biggest beneficiaries when the club was steamrolling the rest of the AL East the first two months.
"He has been through hard times," Johnson said. "He doesn't get too high or too low. He didn't get all full of himself when things were going well. That's why he's the consummate professional, because he can handle adversity as well as success."
He made the best of a difficult situation last night, holding the Rangers to a run on five hits through five innings while he waited again for the offense to get in the game.
"Jimmy pitched a hell of a ballgame," Johnson said. "He threw about 111 pitches. I was hoping to get one more inning out of him, but Ray Miller talked to him and he said he was tired. It was hot so we got him out of there."
The Rangers took the lead in the first inning on an RBI single by first baseman Will Clark, but Key retired 11 of the next 13 batters DTC and shut them out until the Orioles finally broke through for two runs off Oliver in the sixth.
Geronimo Berroa opened that inning with a single to left and Palmeiro launched a drive to center field that just cleared the 400 marker for his 19th home run.
Palmeiro has been largely immune to the club's offensive problems lately. He has hit safely in 14 of 18 games in July, with six homers, 10 RBIs and 11 runs scored. The home run was his third in five games.
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas
Time: 8: 35
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (11-5, 4.05) vs. Rangers' John Burkett (7-8, 4.53)
Feast or famine
The Orioles' Jimmy Key either gets a lot of runs, as in his past two wins, or nearly none at all, as in his past five losses. A look at his past seven starts:
Date ..Opp. .. ..IP .. ..H .. ..ER .. ..Res
6/18 ..Mon. .. ..7 1/3 .. ..3 .. ...1 ..L, 1-0
6/23 ..Mil. .. ..6 .. ...9 .. ...4 ..L, 5-0
6/28 ..Tor. .. ..4 .. ...3 .. ...2 ..L, 5-2
7/3 ...Det. .. ..8 .. ...5 .. ...1 .W, 10-1
7/11 ..Mil. .. ..6 .. ...6 .. ...2 ..L, 3-1
7/16 ..Bos. .. ..6 1/3 .. ..8 .. ...4 ..L, 4-1
7/21 ..Tex. .. ..6 .. ...6 .. ...1 ..W, 5-1
Tot. .. .. ... .43 2/3 .. .40 .. ..15 .. ..2-5
Pub Date: 7/22/97