CLEVELAND -- No, it isn't getting better.
The Orioles not only lost again last night, they lost badly, abandoned once more by their rotation and threadbare middle relief. Scott Erickson (3-3) left his fingerprints all over this one as the Cleveland Indians began a 14-5 wipeout by relentlessly pounding him for 3 1/3 innings.
For the first time this season, the Orioles are worried that a mere slump is snowballing into a trend. During a 6-14 run that has returned them to .500 (16-16) for the second time this season, the rotation has crafted a 5-11 record and a 7.57 ERA nearly triple what it was (2.78) during a 10-2 start.
"To me, right now you've got to be concerned. It's happening every night," said catcher Chris Hoiles, able to watch from the safety of the dugout as the Indians mashed a season-high 17 hits before there were two outs in the seventh inning.
"We show some signs of life, but then you look at [Tuesday] night when we had a lead and lost it in the ninth. We've got too much talent here to go out there and give up 14, 15, 16 runs and close to 20 hits.
"I don't know what it is. We don't have that [poor] caliber of pitching for this to be happening so regularly."
Jim Thome, Brian Giles and Travis Fryman piled on for three hits apiece. All of Thome's hits went for extra bases, including a three-run homer that chased Erickson in the fourth, as he finished with five RBIs. Giles and Kenny Lofton also homered against Erickson, who absorbed the fifth three-homer game of his career.
Indians starter Dave Burba (3-3) hung around for an easy win, holding the Orioles to six hits and three runs over seven innings. Eric Davis hit two bases-empty home runs and Jeffrey Hammonds added a third, but the Orioles trailed 8-1 after four innings.
A year ago the Orioles ranked second in the American League in ERA. Last night's beating dropped them to 12th in a 14-team league. The loss was their fourth in 16 games in which they've surrendered 10 runs or more.
"You win and lose with pitching," Davis said. "We're just not playing well as a team. As a team we're going to go as far as our pitching takes us. Right now they'll tell you they're not pitching the way they can."
The Indians didn't stop with Erickson. Nerio Rodriguez allowed three hits and a run while getting two outs in the fourth. Norm Charlton followed with another unimpressive outing as the Indians reached him for a three-run fifth inning that jacked their lead to 11-2.
"I wanted to see Charlton get lefties and that didn't work out too good," manager Ray Miller said.
Miller later deferred when asked whether the answer for his pitching woes might reside outside his clubhouse.
"That's not my expertise," he said. "I'm supposed to take a $74 million payroll and win with it. Right now, we're not doing it."
The situation grows critical for a team unable to generate any momentum since its 10-2 start. Among the rotation, only Mike Mussina and Jimmy Key give Miller reason for optimism. The rest explains why the Orioles, now eight games back in the AL East, risk losing sight of the division lead even before they face the first-place New York Yankees on May 19.
"I think it's still a positive atmosphere, but obviously we're not taking that attitude out on the field with us," Hoiles said.
Miller said, "When you're in first place, you don't care what anybody else is doing as long as you're winning. When you're in second or third place, when you win you look to see what everybody else is doing."
Erickson started on three days' rest. He was 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA in such situations last year, but never found solid footing this time.
Hittable all season, Erickson allowed as many home runs in his BTC 3 1/3 -inning outing as he did in his previous 45 1/3 combined. Jacobs Field has not been kind to him, either. Erickson now stands 0-5 with an 8.92 ERA in seven career starts, including one postseason appearance, at the Jake.
"I'm not worried at all. I feel great. If I didn't feel good, I'd be worried about something," Erickson said. "If you go out there feeling 100 percent with an idea of what you want to do, it's a matter of executing."
Yet Erickson now finds himself a sinker-ball pitcher without sink.
"This is the big leagues. If you're going to get behind 2-0 and 3-1, you better be able to locate a fastball," Miller said. "If you're going to throw it down the middle, you're going to get your brains beat in. That's what happened tonight. It's happened twice."
The Orioles' loss of Mussina helped explain a two-week swoon by the starting rotation, but the staff's ace has returned. Scott Kamieniecki remains on the disabled list with a groin pull and sore right elbow, but a fifth starter can be compensated for.
A problem with Erickson, the staff's most consistent innings pitcher, is most ominous of all, because this year's staff has shown itself much more fragile than last season's.
"We're still confident, but being confident doesn't win games," Davis said. "We know that better than anybody. It's not one guy's fault; it's not two guys' fault. It's all of our fault. Right now, we're getting the brakes beat off of us."
Said Hoiles: "There really is no excuse anymore."
Since starting 3-0, Orioles right-hander Scott Erickson is 0-3 with two no decisions and an 8.67 ERA in his past five starts:
Date . Opp. .. .. .IP .. ..H .. .. ER .. ..Dec.
4-17 ..at Tex. .. ..2 2/3 11 .. .. .6 .. .. ..L
4-22 ..at Ana. .. ..6 .. ..8 .. .. .3 .. .. .ND
4-27 ..Ana. .. .. ..9 .. ..9 .. .. .3 .. .. ..L
5-2 ...Min. .. .. ..6 .. .10 .. .. .7 .. .. .ND
5-6 ...at Cle. .. ..3 1/3 .. .8 .. .. .7 .. .. ..L
Tot. .. .. .. .. ..27 .. .46 .. ...26 .. ...0-3
Pub Date: 5/07/98