ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It's OK for the Orioles to admit it and come out into the sunshine. They have spent all spring trying to remake themselves into a more versatile bunch with only limited success. Last night they again looked into the mirror and acknowledged their true inner self, a pitching-and-power team.
Backed by home runs from Rafael Palmeiro and Cal Ripken, Mike Mussina produced the first complete-game shutout in the brief history of Tropicana Field as the Orioles ground down the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 7-0.
Mussina made only his second start since returning from a wart-induced stay on the disabled list. And for the second straight start he verified his standing as his team's most important player.
"There was no pressure on me," Mussina said after striking out 10 without a walk in a five-hit effort. "Everybody was looking forward to me coming back and pitching. It could only get better. It couldn't get much worse. Sometimes, it gets contagious. The last few games, we have pitched well and scored a few runs. That's the combination you want."
The past two days the 18-16 Orioles have replaced their chuck-and-duck image with an anticipated mix of pitching
and power. Last night's two homers give them 19 in the past 11 games.
"This is a power team. That hasn't changed," said Palmeiro. "We're coming to a point where there are going to be a lot of two-run and three-run homers. I can feel it. That's the kind of team we are."
Palmeiro's breakout ended an 0-for-11 slump and a career 0-for-15 run vs. Devil Rays knuckleballer Dennis Springer (1-5). Ripken likewise broke a two-week funk.
"Hey, this is an American League team. We slug," said Eric Davis. "Sometimes we slug and run. Other times we run and slug. Then there are times when we slug and slug. When we slug and slug, it works."
When Mussina pitches, it works even better.
Last month, Mussina half-jokingly remarked that he couldn't remember the last time he pitched with a 3-0 lead. Ripken's home run gave him a 4-0 cushion and, according to pitching coach Mike Flanagan, "freed him up" to go after his first complete game since last May 30. Mussina (4-2) capped the masterpiece by striking out the side on 10 pitches in the ninth inning, lowering his ERA to 2.01 and leaving him with 44 strikeouts against seven walks this season.
"I don't believe anyone gets it done as neatly as he does," Flanagan said.
The Orioles had scored only 13 runs in Mussina's previous five starts, leaving him with a loss despite an 11-strikeout performance Opening Day. Only once had Mussina received more than two runs.
"It's the curse of being so good," Flanagan said. "This is the first time we've given him breathing room. You come in knowing you don't have to get everything at once when the pitcher is that good."
Only two weeks ago Mussina carried an emery board as his constant companion. He tried to file away the raised residue from the wart that ripped apart during his April 16 start. Pressure within the index finger remains. More important, the finger has held.
"It's not healed," Mussina said of the virus. "It's tough to heal when you keep beating it up every few days. It's going to take longer."
The hope is that the rotation will mend along with Mussina.
He threw 127 pitches, including 91 strikes. Miller considered yanking him but reconsidered before the ninth inning, a decision that drew thanks from his pitcher.
"He said, 'I don't want to extend you too much. If you get the first guy out, you get to pitch to the second guy.' I knew the situation," Mussina said. "I didn't want to throw 140 pitches."
Mussina responded by boring through left-handed hitters Fred McGriff, Paul Sorrento and Rich Butler. He was denied a nine-pitch inning only because Butler's two-strike half-swing wasn't called.
Mussina received all the support he needed early. Despite his slump, Palmeiro had bashed four home runs in the past eight games. Palmeiro hit a towering fly ball that landed over Tropicana Field's claustrophobic right-field wall for a first-inning home run.
Five innings later Ripken appeared for a third time. He worked the count to 3-1, then turned on what looked to be a non-knuckler for an instant 4-0 lead.
The line drive inside the left-field foul pole was Ripken's first home run since April 9 -- a gulf of 97 at-bats -- and ended a 3-for-29 slide that had dragged his average to .256. It also represented Ripken's first extra-base hit since April 22. The ensuing two weeks have consisted of Ripken groping for form, trying different approaches like suits off the rack.
For more than a week Ripken had tried a flamingo step not unlike that of Davis. The theory espoused by hitting coach Rick Down was that Ripken needed to keep his weight and hands back and the exaggerated step would help.
Ripken discarded the high step several days ago. Once more he is sliding into pitches with little wasted motion.
"The key thing you want to do is see the ball," explained Ripken, who added an RBI single in the eighth inning. "Every hitter goes through times when they are more comfortable than at others. The thing for me recently has been to keep myself from getting in front of the ball. You can call it a flamingo step, whatever that might be. But it's an attempt to keep your weight back. It's that simple. It's not technique. I try not to get too technical about it."
But work he does.
"It's a measure of the man that he keeps working and working until he finds what he needs," said Down. "He's worked his tail off. It paid off tonight."
Orioles today Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Site: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
Time: 1: 35
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jimmy Key (4-1, 3.14) vs. Devil Rays' Wilson Alvarez (3-4, 4.06)
Pub Date: 5/10/98