In a tell-all sixth inning against the team he once embraced, Rafael Palmeiro further suggested last night that he has rediscovered his offensive rhythm, and the Orioles with him.
Palmeiro pierced the Orioles' 13-hit breakout by lining the second pitch he saw from Bobby Witt over the right-field scoreboard for a three-run homer. It stood as the catalyst for the Orioles' 7-2 win over a fast-fading Texas Rangers team they have now beaten in eight of nine tries this season.
The Orioles served notice their offensive stupor is ending. Following up Sunday's 9-0 win over Minnesota, every starter hit safely. They slammed five extra-base hits -- including a game-tying two-run homer by Roberto Alomar (4-for-5) -- and made the Rangers' two-run first inning irrelevant.
The pounding benefited Orioles starter Mike Mussina (11-4), who won for the first time since June 30 and completed a satisfying run along with Jimmy Key and Scott Erickson. The win was only the Orioles' fourth in their last 11 games at Camden Yards. A game that had some crazy fan perched atop the 64-foot-high left-field foul pole ended with Armando Benitez dancing from the mound with his eighth save.
"It had been awhile since I won, but it wasn't like I pitched terribly," said Mussina, who allowed six hits and two runs in seven innings. "I left a game with the lead once and I got shut out once and only gave up two runs. It seemed long because the All-Star break was in there and that stretches it out a little longer. You just have to keep going out there and working. You know the guys are going to come around and we were going to get hot."
In the sixth, the Orioles broke Witt (10-6) within a span of three hitters. Alomar singled, Jeffrey Hammonds walked on four pitches then Palmeiro launched his 23rd home run over the right-field scoreboard. Three more consecutive hits and Geronimo Berroa's sacrifice fly brought the Orioles another run.
No longer suffering from a power outage, the Orioles have won seven of nine and regrouped to 18-19 since sweeping the Atlanta Braves on June 13-15 to create a nine-game lead in the AL East. The awakening of Palmeiro is the best news of all.
Palmeiro has yet to reconstruct an average ravaged by a .206 June, his worst month as an Oriole. But neither is he frustrated by the prolonged slump that trapped him with strikeouts and limp fly balls. Palmeiro's home run gives him five in his past seven games and extended his hitting streak to seven games. He also has hit in 15 of 18 games.
No opponent ignites Palmeiro more than the Rangers. Having moved to Dallas, Palmeiro was allowed to leave the club via free agency after a 1993 season in which he hit 37 homers and drove in 105 runs. That the Rangers replaced him with Will Clark, more a rival than a teammate while the two were at Mississippi State, only added irritant. Palmeiro has since wasted few opportunities to exact revenge. Last night's home run was his sixth of the season and fourth in his last four games against Texas.
Since 1994, Palmeiro has given the Orioles 124 home runs and 391 RBIs. Clark has given Texas 53 homers and 287 RBIs.
For the first time this month, the Orioles' offense helped Mussina.
Still in search of his first 20-win campaign, Mussina has pitched consistently all season but has received uneven offensive support. His 10 wins before the All-Star break included seven supported by seven or more runs. However, since the break he had pitched eight innings twice, registered 14 and eight strikeouts in two of four starts, allowed less than a hit per inning, yet emerged without a win. Two of his losses have come in shutouts.
Mussina controlled the Rangers July 23, surrendering five hits and two runs in eight innings before leaving after 109 pitches.
Having lost nine of their last 14, the Rangers arrived trying to convince management they are still contenders. Last week's trade of Dean Palmer to the Kansas City Royals for rabbit outfielder Tom Goodwin served as one jolt. The recent firm negotiating stance toward pending free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez serves as another. Rodriguez and tonight's starting pitcher, Ken Hill, have been the hub of swirling trade rumors, some involving the Orioles.
They started early against Mussina. Goodwin walked to begin the game then became only the fifth player to steal successfully against the right-hander this season. After a strikeout of Mark McLemore, Goodwin trotted home when left fielder Rusty Greer extended his career numbers against Mussina with a home run to right-center field. The blast lifted Greer to 8-for-23 with five RBIs against Mussina.
Greer's homer marked the fifth consecutive game Mussina has surrendered at least one. His six home runs allowed in five July starts are twice as many as he allowed in six June appearances.
"I used everything I had to try to get [Greer] out," Mussina said of jTC the first-inning at-bat. "He kept fouling it off or I missed with it."
But the Orioles would answer in kind.
Witt started last Wednesday's game against Mussina in Arlington, allowing eight hits and two runs in seven innings. He was not around for the decision in the Orioles' 12-inning 3-2 win.
Like Mussina, Witt had pitched well recently with diminishing returns. In his previous six starts, he had a 2-1 record to show for a 2.91 ERA.
After ending the first two innings with double plays, the Orioles evened the game in the third thanks to a two-out rally involving Mike Bordick and Alomar.
Thanks partly to dropping Berroa into the No. 7 spot in the order, the return of No. 8 hitter Chris Hoiles from the disabled list and the offensive revival of Bordick, the Orioles no longer offer a ready place for a pitcher to hide. Bordick's two-out hit gave him hits in 10 of his last 11 games.
After a day off, Alomar batted leadoff in his fifth straight game. He had pounded four hits in Witt's last start and began another four-hit night by slicing Witt's fastball to left-center field for his 10th home run.
Mussina righted himself quickly after Greer's blast. He retired 10 consecutive hitters before Lee Stevens led off the fifth inning with a single and had gone through 14 of 15 hitters before landing in a brief sixth-inning jam. He escaped a first-and-second situation with one out by getting Clark to ground out weakly and striking out Ivan Rodriguez.
Mussina left after seven innings and 97 pitches, handing over a four-run lead to a rested bullpen.
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Rangers' Ken Hill (5-8, 5.19) vs. Orioles' Rick Krivda (1997 debut)
Tickets: 350 remain.
Pub Date: 7/29/97