ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- If the past three weeks were about losing ugly, Ray Miller devoted last night to sending messages.
Pushed beyond patience by a grotesque 6-14 run, the Orioles manager sandwiched two sessions of tough love around an encouraging 8-2 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Before the game Miller told his pitchers to regain their focus. Afterward he reminded outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds nothing can be taken for granted.
In return, the 17-16 Orioles gained a strong pitching performance from starter Doug Drabek, Arthur Rhodes and Armando Benitez as the Devil Rays were checked on four hits, none after the fifth inning. Stymied on one run by Devil Rays left-hander and Glen Burnie High alumnus Tony Saunders for six innings, they hammered the Tampa Bay bullpen for a five-run seventh inning and a two-run eighth en route to a 14-hit breakout.
"I think," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said, "this thing is turning."
Pinch hitter Harold Baines broke a 2-2 tie with a flared, bases-loaded double with one out in the seventh inning against reliever Albie Lopez (0-1). B. J. Surhoff and Mike Bordick followed with two-run hits to cement the ending.
Before the game, Miller thought it the right time to make a statement. A five-minute statement to be precise.
For the first time this season he made clear his displeasure to a staff that has scattershot its way to a 7.57 ERA in the previous 20 games.
Finally provoked by Wednesday's 14-5 loss in Cleveland, Miller spoke to pitchers and catchers after pitching coach Mike Flanagan and before bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. The manager's message was blunt. Too many pitchers were consistently falling behind hitters, forcing them to feed fastballs at obvious times.
"I think everyone had become a little bit apprehensive about what was going on," catcher Lenny Webster said. "We consistently weren't doing the things that a staff like ours should be doing. I think hearing it from Ray helped. Nobody was yelling. It was just straightforward."
"There's a lot of pressure here for everybody," reliever Jesse Orosco said. "People look at us and see a $71 million payroll. They assume this is a playoff team, and we haven't played like one lately. Maybe [the talk] helped."
Drabek followed up with a solid five-inning start blemished only by Kevin Stocker's fifth-inning home run and a leadoff walk in the sixth that turned into a 2-1 Devil Rays lead on Rhodes' wild pitch. However, Rhodes (2-0) and Benitez did not allow a hit while the Orioles jumped on three Devil Rays relievers for seven runs and seven hits in three innings.
"We finally broke out," Miller said. "There was a lot of intensity in the dugout today."
Drabek gave a second straight competent start after altering his delivery and again using an effective split-fingered pitch.
Devil Rays cleanup hitter Fred McGriff entered hitting a career .528 with four home runs against Drabek. This time Drabek escaped two early jams by getting McGriff to pop out and to ground into a double play on a 3-0 count.
Webster's one-out double in the fourth inning scored Hammonds from first for a 1-0 lead. Drabek lost the lead in the fifth inning when Stocker homered.
Hammonds again became a central figure an inning later. Hitting with one out in the sixth and the game tied, Hammonds punished a fly ball to the deepest part of Tropicana Field. Center fielder Quinton McCracken retreated but underestimated the ball's carry. Hammonds never sprinted. When the ball ricocheted off the wall, Hammonds failed to accelerate, coasting instead for a double.
The inning before, Hammonds made a sliding catch to rob John Flaherty. Hammonds got up slowly and appeared to favor his right leg, but did not receive medical attention.
Concerned over Hammonds' jog, Miller went out to check on his center fielder. At one point the manager called into the dugout for just-activated Brady Anderson to pinch run. Hammonds insisted he was fine. But having just watched Hammonds fail to take a crucial base, Miller was unmoved.
"I don't know if he watched the ball or not, but I didn't like the way he ran," said Miller, who met with Hammonds 45 minutes after the game. "I said if that's the best you can run we've got to get somebody else out there. He bruised his leg pretty good, but you've got to be able to run better than that in a tie game. If that's sending a message, fine."
Hammonds entered the dugout and kept walking into the tunnel leading to the clubhouse. Moments later, a trainer's report described Hammonds as aggravating a lower leg contusion.
"I ran the same speed all the way. I wish I could say that I thought it [the fly ball] was out. I went into the game hobbling a little bit," Hammonds said. "Skip didn't think I could run as good as I could. I was hurting from the start.
"I just didn't want to come out of the game. I wasn't [mad] at him. He's the manager. I was just mad that I couldn't go any further."
Hammonds denied going into an early home run trot. "I didn't have any idea how far it would go. I just couldn't hit another gear. I didn't want to come out, but he has the say-so," he said.
First base coach Carlos Bernhardt and Hendricks spoke animatedly with Hammonds shortly after the game.
Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild reversed the game by removing Saunders for Lopez to begin the seventh.
The 2-1 lead lasted one pitch. Right fielder Eric Davis jumped on Lopez's first strike for a slicing home run into the Devils Rays' bullpen. The home run was Davis' fifth in his last four starts, including at least one in each game.
Lopez never got an out but he did get the loss. He hit Palmeiro, inciting Miller to ask umpire Ed Hickox to issue a warning. Miller perceived the hit on Palmeiro as payback for Davis' home run.
Joe Carter then doubled to push Palmeiro to third with the go-ahead run. Cal Ripken interrupted a 2-for-28 slide with a walk to load the bases, prompting Rothschild to yank Lopez after only 14 pitches. He replaced him with ex-Oriole Esteban Yan, who entered with two wins and a 1.10 ERA. Having seen his act before, the Orioles were unimpressed.
Anderson popped out for the first out. Pinch hitting for Webster, Baines looped a double in front of left fielder Rich Butler to score Palmeiro and Carter. Surhoff followed a two-out walk to Alomar with a two-run single that bumped the lead to 6-2.
Rhodes (2-0) then overpowered the Devil Rays for three innings to bump his record to 21-4 the past three seasons. For at least one night, Miller's tough love brought positive returns.
Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Site: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Time: 6: 35
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Mike Mussina (3-2, 2.52) vs. Devil Rays' Dennis Springer (1-4, 4.91)
Pub Date: 5/09/98