NEW YORK -- The first pitch from Hideki Irabu last night was a called strike, straight down the middle of the plate. It didn't wedge between the shoulder blades of Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson. It didn't whiz past his ear, didn't leave an imprint anywhere except in the mitt of New York catcher Jorge Posada.
So far, so good.
Baseball was played at Yankee Stadium last night, the Orioles and New York declining to add a Roman numeral to the previous night's Wrestlemania. Such restraint proved wisest for the hosts, who pushed the Orioles deeper into last place by jumping -- figuratively -- on Jimmy Key in a 9-6 victory before 32,449.
The loss was the seventh in a row for the Orioles (20-25), their longest streak since June 1995, and it would have been worse if not for ninth-inning homers by Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and B. J. Surhoff. They've fallen 13 games behind the Yankees (30-9), their largest deficit since the end of the '95 season. They're 16 back in the loss column and approaching another series sweep before traveling to the West Coast.
"If anything can go wrong right now, it's going wrong," Key said.
Tensions ran high less than 24 hours after the teams engaged in a furious brawl that started when Orioles reliever Armando Benitez hit Tino Martinez in the back after surrendering a game-turning three-run homer to Bernie Williams. Suspensions were handed out yesterday. Threats were issued.
Darryl Strawberry promised retribution for being sucker-punched by Orioles reliever Alan Mills in the visitors' dugout. Teammate Paul O'Neill added, "It's not over."
It began to simmer again in the first inning when Key hit Chad Curtis on the foot with a breaking pitch during New York's four-run uprising. The crowd protested, and manager Joe Torre could be seen yelling from the dugout.
The response came quickly. Irabu got two outs in the second inning, then planted a fastball into the left side of Mike Bordick. The Orioles shortstop dropped his bat and headed to first without glancing toward the mound. Anderson did the same after taking a pitch off his right leg leading off the fifth, and the game passed without incident.
Torre said the pitches weren't intentional. "He had no command. The ball that hit Brady was a fastball that sailed about two feet. The one to Bordick missed its spot by about a foot."
"I thought our guys handled it well," said Orioles manager Ray Miller, who met with his players behind closed doors before the game. "Was there any retaliation? I don't think so. Hopefully, we can move on."
Miller's only regret was that Anderson was thrown out trying to steal after being drilled with his club trailing by five runs. "I figured he wouldn't run so I didn't hold him. It's as much my fault as his."
The Orioles can blame themselves for lighting a fire under the hottest team in the majors. "When something like that happens, you have more desire to beat the other club," said reliever Jeff Nelson, who faces a two-game suspension. "Instead of going out and drilling somebody, you want to beat them in every part of the game -- pitching, hitting, defense."
Their bullpen having gone from unreliable to short-handed with Benitez serving an eight-game suspension, the Orioles needed Key to make another triumphant return to the Bronx and pitch into the late innings. Nine would have been appreciated. Anything less was dicey.
He had trouble just getting through the first. The Yankees sent up nine batters and scored four times to erase a 1-0 deficit and set the tone for another miserable evening for baseball's biggest washout.
Chuck Knoblauch reached on an infield hit in the first and Derek Jeter extended his hitting streak to 15 games by tripling into left-center field. One out later, Tim Raines singled past third for a 2-1 lead, and Posada doubled off the base of the right-field fence to bring in two more.
Key (4-3) hadn't given up this many runs over an entire game since Texas scored eight on April 19. Even so, he's winless since April 30, losing twice in a row after two no decisions.
He was pulled last night with two outs in the sixth, charged with a season-high nine runs and 12 hits, including a bases-empty homer by Scott Brosius leading off the inning. Left-hander Norm Charlton, pitching for the fourth time in six days, allowed both inherited runners to score.
"So far in 10 starts I've pitched bad in two nights when it wasn't a good night to do that," Key said. "I couldn't slow these guys down."
Miller said: "I'm embarrassed to have a starter suck up nine runs, but we're going to be playing a pitcher short and the bullpen's a little beat up. The way Jimmy Key is, he'll do anything for the ballclub."
Making his first career start against the Orioles, Irabu (3-0) continued his remarkable turnaround from last season, a nightmarish experience for both pitcher and organization. In better shape and with sounder mind, not to mention nastier stuff, the Japanese import helped the Yankees to their 29th win in 34 games by limiting the Orioles to two runs and six hits over 6 1/3 innings. It was the first time in six starts he had allowed more than one run.
The Orioles were lucky to get anything off him. Anderson led off with a gift triple to right, his bat shattering as the ball deflected off the glove of a sliding O'Neill on one hop and kicked back toward the infield. He scored on a fly ball by Jeffrey Hammonds, but Irabu escaped further harm after a walk and stolen base by Alomar.
Key wasn't so fortunate, getting ambushed again in the fourth on a two-out walk to Knoblauch and run-scoring hits by Jeter and O'Neill.
Pub Date: 5/21/98