TORONTO -- Along with such childlike beliefs as the tooth fairy, penny candy and a baseball commissioner another fantasy sprouts: the Orioles can get a whiff of the postseason without a healthier, reshaped pitching staff.
What might have been an uplifting takedown of Roger Clemens (7-6) was undone when third baseman Ed Sprague reached Orioles first-time starter Pete Smith for a game-changing three-run homer last night. Trailing for the first time after five innings, the Orioles never recovered and took a 7-4 loss before 28,132 at SkyDome.
The Orioles fell 18 1/2 games behind first-place New York -- a now-irrelevant statistic -- and 8 1/2 games behind wild-card leader Boston. The last 15 games say much. Pounded last night for 12 hits -- 10 in Smith's 4 2/3 innings -- the Orioles have surrendered 174 hits and 30 home runs during a 15-game stretch beginning on May 30. In nine of those games they have allowed eight or more runs. Starting pitchers also have failed to pitch at least six innings in nine of those games.
Smith became the 18th pitcher employed by the Orioles this year. Manager Ray Miller was impressed some, but also chafed at three walks, all with none out.
"I feel like I'm one pitcher short and two players short every day," said Miller, still able to mouth the word "optimism" but with little conviction.
Depending on the status of Doug Drabek, the 32-36 Orioles could find themselves with a rotation consisting of two pitchers who began the season at Rochester and a third who has pitched beyond the fifth inning in two of nine starts this season.
The Orioles feel they have improved since last seeing the New York Yankees, who arrive today for a three-game series. The Orioles have committed one error in the past 20 games and resurrected a power game that served them well the previous two seasons. But any impression is sobered by the fact they are only 12-10 since hitting bottom.
By playing .600 the rest of the way they finish with 88 wins, the same number that snuck them in as the 1996 wild card. Those are play numbers when addressing a team with two three-game win streaks since its 10-2 start.
"It's difficult to expect the same from replacements as those guys they're replacing," said Mike Mussina, who has made two starts in the last month after landing on the disabled list a second time.
"At some point it has to turn around. It has to, doesn't it?" he added, mouthing a question that no longer carries an automatic answer.
In losing two of three games to the Blue Jays, and failing to take third place in the process, Mussina, Drabek and Smith allowed 13 earned runs and 22 hits in 12 innings. The Blue Jays are last in the league in batting.
Leading Clemens 4-2 in the fifth, Smith began the inning with two walks, got a fly ball out, then allowed Darrin Fletcher an RBI single. He then pounded two strikes on Sprague and believed he had struck out the third baseman on a pitch that plate umpire Al Clark called a ball.
"It was a strike," said Smith. "I thought it was a strike out there and I knew it was when I watched the replay up here."
Sprague then muscled a broken-bat fly ball over the bullpen fence in left field. Smith couldn't believe it.
"Give him credit. He broke his bat in half and got it out," cracked Smith. "Next week maybe he'll have his own TV show."
Two hitters later, Smith was gone. So, too, were the Orioles' chances. They managed only one hit once Clemens left with one out in the sixth.
Once again Miller used Alan Mills in long relief, a role he never handled last season. Now Mills appears more often in the fourth and fifth inning than he does in the sixth or seventh. Until Terry Mathews returns from the disabled list Wednesday, Mills and Armando Benitez are the Orioles' only healthy right-handed relievers.
If this were ice skating, it would be called a death spiral. Since it's baseball, the Orioles still say it's early.
Second in the league in home runs, the Orioles played small ball against Clemens, who had allowed one or no runs in seven of his 12 previous starts but had been very mortal (1-4, 6.95) in his other five. Miller dusted off the double steal and a double sacrifice with much success.
Given a leadoff walk and a chopped single to begin the second inning, the Orioles scored twice with only one ball leaving the infield.
With Roberto Alomar at second and Surhoff at first, Cal Ripken pulled Clemens for an RBI single, his ninth RBI in 90 career at-bats against the five-time Cy Young Award winner. Surhoff stopped at second, leading Miller to use effective but unconventional strategy to take a 2-0 lead.
Catcher Chris Hoiles, who bunts roughly once every El Nino, sacrificed both runners into scoring position. Shortstop Jeff Reboulet interrupted a string of nine strikeouts in 17 at-bats with a well-placed suicide squeeze, scoring Surhoff.
Jose Canseco's 20th home run pulled the Blue Jays within 2-1 in the third inning. The homer moved Canseco within four (371) of Ripken for fifth among active players.
Back-to-back doubles by Sprague and Craig Grebeck tied the game after the homer. Clemens was then undone in the fifth by a combination of lacking control and overriding ego.
With one out, Harold Baines and Rafael Palmeiro singled. With two outs, Clemens bounced a pitch to advance both runners and create an obvious vacancy for left-handed nemesis Surhoff, who began the at-bat with a career .333 average and 13 RBIs vs. Clemens.
After falling behind Surhoff 3-0, Clemens got a generous strike call from Smith's friend Mr. Clark, then a foul ball. No longer
willing to concede a walk to confront Ripken, he fed a fastball that Surhoff turned into two RBIs and a 4-2 lead.
The Orioles would not be heard from again.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Yankees' David Wells (8-1, 4.25) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (6-6, 4.60)
.' Tickets: Fewer than 400 remain
Pete Smith became the fifth pitcher to make his first Orioles start this season, with only one win to show for it:
Pitcher .. D .. .. .. Opp .. .. IP .. .. H .. .. ER .. .. Res
Drabek .. 4/3 . .. .. Det .. .. 7 1/3 .. .. 7 .. .. 2 .. . W10-2
Johns .. 4/21 .. .. . Ana .. .. 4 .. ... 7 .. .. 3 .. .. ..ND
Ponson . 4/29 .. .. . Chi .. .. 4 .. ... 6 .. .. 6 ... L 16-7
Munoz .. 5/30 .. .. . Tex .. .. 3 .. ... 4 .. .. 5 .. .. . ND
Smith .. 6/14 .. .. . Tor .. .. 4 2/3 .. ..10 .. .. 6 .. ..L 7-4
Note: Nerio Rodriguez and Richie Lewis had made Orioles starts in previous seasons
Pub Date: 6/15/98