MINNEAPOLIS -- It took Scott Erickson six traumatic starts to hit bottom. He needed only six inches to get back on top.
Ending four weeks of personal frustration and organizational worry, Erickson implemented a mechanical adjustment discovered only Saturday to deal a five-hit, 4-0 complete game at the Minnesota Twins before 9,317 at the Metrodome last night. Once again, Erickson resembled the pitcher with the heaviest sinker in baseball. Once again, the Orioles believe they see the foundation of a potent starting rotation.
"If there was ever an example for every pitcher in baseball, that game right there was it," said a relieved manager Ray Miller.
Home runs by Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar mixed with Harold Baines' RBI single for enough offense. Palmeiro's fifth-inning homer not only provided the Orioles a 1-0 lead, it gave them their first hit.
Erickson (4-3) broke a disturbing run of five winless starts by rediscovering the devastating sinker and slider that had eluded him since an April 1 complete game against Kansas City. The shutout was the Orioles' third in seven games and also represented their second complete-game shutout in three games.
Paired against soft-tossing Twins starter Bob Tewksbury (3-5) in a lightning-paced pitcher's duel, Erickson emerged the superior pitcher. A pinata for most of his previous eight starts, Erickson stuffed the Twins on 15 ground-ball outs and five strikeouts. Only twice did a Twins base runner reach third base. Of Erickson's 104 pitches, 80 were strikes. The complete game represented his first win since April 12 and halted a disturbing five-game slide in which he surrendered 46 hits in 27 innings.
"It feels good to get back to something that's more successful," said Erickson.
In his previous start -- a 14-5 mauling at Cleveland last Wednesday -- Erickson allowed seven runs on eight hits in only 3 1/3 innings. Even including Erickson's mistake by the lake, the rotation has compiled a 2.54 ERA in the last seven games. When the Orioles began the season 10-2, the rotation compiled a 2.78 ERA.
Since Erickson's previous start, pitching coach Mike Flanagan had discovered that the right-hander had shortened his stride by about six inches, a significant amount that caused his pitches to elevate and straighten. Flanagan described it as a "premature" release. In the six starts he had not completed, Erickson had compiled a 9.10 ERA and averaged fewer than five innings. The absence of Mike Mussina only made the situation more critical.
"I was looking. Mike was looking," related Miller. "We were looking at films and everything. Sometimes you don't see the forest for the trees. You look at release, you look at angle of the body and where the arm is coming and everything looks the same. Mike looked and thought he saw that the stride was markedly shorter. That would seem to cut off the sinker and leave a few more pitches up."
On Saturday, Flanagan had stepped off Erickson's stride
heel-to-toe during a side session at Tropicana Field. He came up a half-step shy. Reminded to extend further through his pitches, Erickson immediately noted improvement.
The flaw is a recurring one that plagued Erickson before his arrival in Baltimore in 1995 when Flanagan was serving his first term as Orioles pitching coach.
"Mike told me the first time we talked last year that he had never seen such a big man with such a short stride," recalled Miller.
Erickson theorized that experimenting with an ill-fated changeup brought on his relapse. "It wasn't so much an adjustment as it was going back to basics. I wasted so much time with the changeup and all that [stuff] it had thrown off my normal delivery," he groused.
Asked if he thought Erickson's theory well-founded, Flanagan conceded, "It's possible. With a changeup you want to get your foot down as quickly as possible. He's always messing with an off-speed pitch and it may have affected his stride. But he got back out front and the arm speed came back. Everything was where it was supposed to be."
Tewksbury and Erickson roared through the first four innings without allowing a base runner. In one stretch, Erickson retired eight straight hitters on ground balls before finishing off the fourth inning with a strikeout of Paul Molitor. The Twins didn't put a hard swing on a ball until Orlando Merced began the fifth with a line drive snared by right fielder Eric Davis.
Tewksbury lives by throwing first-pitch strikes and allowing fewer than one walk per nine innings. He showed no fear against a lineup that has recently depended on home runs for its scoring.
Palmeiro had no trouble extending that trend leading off the fifth inning, but not before he received second life from plate umpire Rick Reed. Frozen by Tewksbury's 2-2 pitch, he received a close call to force a full count. The first baseman then lifted Tewksbury's next offering off the Plexiglas facing of a mezzanine luxury box. The hit extended the Orioles' run to 13 consecutive games with at least one homer.
With one out in the fifth, center fielder Matt Lawton spoiled Erickson's perfection with an infield double. His starched grounder hit off Alomar and caromed into short center field. Lawton hustled to second, where he was stranded.
Suddenly, the Orioles found offense against Tewksbury. Mike Bordick singled and stole second before being stranded in the sixth.
In the seventh, Palmeiro doubled to left-center field with one out then scored for a 2-0 lead when Baines singled to right. For Baines, it was his 13th RBI in his last 14 games, a staggering pace for a player given only 21 starts.
The Orioles returned in the eighth inning to virtually put the game out of reach. Lenny Webster led off with a broken-bat single to center field. Following a sacrifice bunt, Alomar pulled his third home run of the season -- his first batting left-handed -- over the monstrous trash bag that is the Metrodome right-field wall.
Erickson ran into his toughest moment in the bottom of the seventh. It began when Molitor beat out a slow grounder to short. Merced then cracked the Twins' third hit to advance Molitor one base. The situation pulled Flanagan to the mound when Lawton looped a third consecutive hit that dropped in front of center fielder Brady Anderson, who broke slowly.
Erickson responded by providing the signature to his tightly wrapped game. Facing Javier Valentin, he induced a high chop to the mound. Not renowned for his defense, Erickson leaped to make the stop then threw to Webster, who completed the 1-2-3 double play.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis
Time: 8: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Kamieniecki (2-1, 6.46) vs. Twins' LaTroy Hawkins (1-3, 5.54)
Though Scott Erickson faltered against his former team on May 2 this season, yielding seven earned runs in six innings, he has been largely successful vs. the Twins, with a 4-0 record and a 1.34 ERA last year. In each of the past five wins against them, he's allowed five hits.
Date .. IP .. H .. ER .. SO .. Res
4/14 .. 8 ... 5 ... 2 ... 4 .. W 4-2
5/1 ... 8 1/3 .. 5 ... 2 ... 7 .. W 3-2
7/27 .. 9 ... 5 ... 0 ... 9 .. W 9-0
8/22 .. 8 1/3 .. 5 ... 1 ... 8 .. W 3-1
Totals 33 2/3 . 20 ... 5 .. 28 .. 4-0
5/11 .. 9 ... 5 ... 0 ... 5 .. W 4-0
Pub Date: 5/12/98