Maybe it's too early for turning points. Maybe it's too early to assign tremendous significance to any single game.
Slumping starter Doug Drabek turned in a solid six-inning performance last night and the Orioles got past one of the best young pitchers in baseball to defeat the Minnesota Twins, 6-3, in the opener of a three-game series at Camden Yards.
First baseman Rafael Palmeiro hit a two-run homer off 1997 20-game winner Brad Radke to bring the Orioles from behind in the sixth inning and added an RBI single in the seventh to propel the club to its second victory in a row in a game delayed nearly two hours by rain.
Two in a row. It's not exactly a winning streak, but it's a big step in the right direction for a struggling Orioles team that had not put two victories together since winning three straight April 11-14.
Two in a row. The Orioles got their second straight solid performance from the injury-riddled starting rotation, which should get healthier tomorrow when ace Mike Mussina returns from the 15-day disabled list.
Drabek gave up three runs on seven hits and walked just one on the way to his second Orioles victory. He struggled through a rocky third inning, but pitched well enough to give the club reason to believe he can shake off a difficult April and hold down the fourth slot in the starting rotation.
"Obviously, when you get off to the kind of start I got off to, you've got to turn things around," said Drabek (2-4). "Mike [pitching coach Mike Flanagan], in between starts, has been talking to me a lot, basically saying that you can't change what has happened. You've got to look at it as a fresh start. That's what I tried to do."
The veteran right-hander had reached the point where a decent start seemed imperative. He pitched very well in spring training and was impressive in his Orioles' debut, but came into last night's game needing to get out from under a four-game losing streak.
The outlook wasn't good. He had given up 20 earned runs in
15 1/3 innings (11.74 ERA) over his previous four starts and had served up six home runs, his slump coinciding too closely with the 3-11 tailspin that had dropped the Orioles well behind the streaking New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Even manager Ray Miller, whose association with Drabek goes back to Pittsburgh, appeared to be losing patience.
So, Drabek took the mound last night and retired six of the first seven batters he faced, buying time until the Orioles jumped on Radke for two runs on four hits in the bottom of the second.
It wasn't exactly a study in hard contact. Harold Baines got the rally started by legging out his fourth infield single of the season. Cal Ripken followed with a soft liner that dropped in center and Jeffrey Hammonds bounced into a force before Lenny Webster drove in the first run of the game with another roller down to third.
The only hard-hit ball in the inning was delivered by shortstop Mike Bordick, who singled sharply through the left side of the infield to bring home Hammonds.
The Orioles were on the scoreboard first for the third straight game, but the 2-0 lead would not hold up for long. Drabek faltered in the third, giving up three runs on four hits and putting the bullpen in motion. He allowed four of the first five batters to hit safely, but eventually struck out former Orioles prospect Alex Ochoa to get out of first-and-third jam.
Miller went to the mound during that inning, but only to remind Drabek to stay aggressive.
"I think we went from a double negative to a big positive," Miller said. "Obviously, I didn't want to go too far with Doug, but if I go out and get him because he gave up three runs, he's thinks he doesn't have my confidence. If I leave him in and he gives up some more, then he loses confidence in himself."
Drabek stayed in and the Orioles' defense helped him rebuild his confidence with a series of big plays -- the biggest a slick double play initiated by second baseman Roberto Alomar that got him out of a jam in the fourth.
Radke didn't let a handful of funny-looking hits unravel him. He settled in after the Twins' third-inning rally and carried the one-run lead into the sixth before a single by Joe Carter and Palmeiro's fourth home run put the Orioles back on top. They added a couple of insurance runs in the seventh inning on an RBI double by B. J. Surhoff and Palmeiro's second run-scoring hit of the game.
"I made two bad pitches," Radke said. "Palmeiro's home run and the curveball to Carter when he got the single. Other than that, I thought I did pretty well. I got a couple of bad breaks in the second inning. A couple of swinging bunts. It just didn't go my way tonight. Things were going kind of smoothly until Palmeiro got up."
Palmeiro did not get off to a great start at the plate this year, but he has heated up considerably the past few weeks. He is batting .404 over the past 14 games with 10 extra-base hits (seven doubles, three home runs) and 13 RBIs.
Drabek didn't come out for the seventh. He had thrown 89 pitches and put the club in position to win. He also put Miller in position to use his short relief corps the way it was intended, starting with middleman Arthur Rhodes in the seventh and handing closer Armando Benitez a relatively easy save opportunity in the ninth.
Benitez retired the Twins in order to record his sixth save and maybe -- just maybe -- the Orioles turned a big corner. "I don't think that was a corner we went around," Miller said. "I think the bottom just got snatched out from under us for [a few] days because of injuries. When you have your starting pitching lined up and your infield is playing well, you're going to be all right."
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Twins' Mike Morgan (0-1, 4.25) vs. O's Scott Erickson (3-2, 4.81)
Tickets: 2,400 remain
Doug Drabek shook off a four-game losing streak with last night's effort. A look:
Date Opp. ..... IP ... H ... ER ... Res
4/10 Det ...... 4 .... 7 ... 6 .... L 7-1
4/15 Chi ...... 4 .... 6 ... 5 .... L 7-6
4/20 Ana ...... 5 .... 5 ... 4 .... L 4-3
4/26 Oak ...... 2 1/3 7 ... 5 .... L 12-4
5/1 Min ....... 6 .... 7 ... 3 .... W 6-3
Pub Date: 5/02/98