Chased into the All-Star break by a crushing 1-11 funk, the Orioles had given rigor mortis a bad name. Three games later, they have outplayed the Boston Red Sox in three consecutive one-run wins. It must be the approaching millennium. Or Ray Miller's Thursday clubhouse revival. Or, even more implausible, the Orioles' oft-lampooned starting pitching.
Scott Erickson claimed a game his offense tried to give away yesterday, getting 26 of 27 outs in the Orioles' 2-1 win over the wild card-leading Red Sox at Camden Yards. The decision pushed the Orioles to their first three-game win streak since June 1-3 and cut the gulf separating them from the Red Sox to 12 1/2 games with 71 to go. Erickson (9-7) surrendered four hits, one walk and one run in 8 2/3 innings before Jesse Orosco capped a magical three-game stretch with a one-pitch save.
"I feel pretty good about the way I pitched. Then again, I feel good about the way I've been pitching for a while now," said Erickson, his only crime a bases-empty home run to John Valentin to lead off the eighth.
The Orioles have won three straight while scoring eight runs, beating two 10-game winners and an 11-win ace along the way. In the three wins, Orioles starting pitchers have allowed two earned runs or less -- the first time that's happened since last July 30-Aug. 1.
Manager Ray Miller referred to Erickson as "pretty dominant." Through four perfect innings Erickson contained the league's fourth-highest-scoring team on 44 pitches. He finished with eight strikeouts and never faced a base runner in scoring position.
Meanwhile, Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield (10-4) suffered his first loss since June 6 as punishment for allowing the Orioles their first multi-run rally in 37 innings. The knuckleballer allowed 13 base runners in 6 2/3 innings. He survived because of nonexistent clutch hitting.
For all the talk of pitiful starting pitching, the Orioles haven't exactly made Camden Yards resemble Muscle Beach this summer. They have hit 13 home runs in the last 15 games but gone wanting for a three-run game-changer.
After stranding seven runners Thursday, right fielder Joe Carter put them ahead yesterday with his leadoff homer in the fourth inning. Carter has 10 home runs this season, all with the bases empty.
The Orioles followed up Carter's blast by scoring one more run despite a double from Cal Ripken and consecutive singles by Lenny Webster and Mike Bordick with nobody out. Bordick's hit was a bunt that loaded the bases.
Batting leadoff for the first time since 1995, Jeff Reboulet scored Ripken on a sacrifice fly. The inning died when Brady Anderson and Eric Davis didn't leave the infield. The Orioles have now gone 76 innings without clumping three runs.
"All it needs to do is loosen up a little more. A win's a win," said Miller. "The more games you win, the more people relax. You don't put so much pressure on yourself all the time."
Instead, the Orioles stole a base, worked a hit-and-run and grabbed an extra base on an outfield bobble. They'll wait for the breakout.
"We pressed the issue pretty good today. With this club you can apply pressure if you have a one- or two-run lead. You can pick your spots, even spots with guys who don't run," said Miller. "My intent today was to annoy Wakefield. He's so quick to the plate, if you don't do anything he just worries about the knuckleball. Maybe if you steal a couple bases he'll throw a few more fastballs or rush the knuckleball a little bit."
Instead, it was what Miller calls "the knuckleball from hell" that annoyed the Orioles, who were only 2-for-12 against Wakefield with runners in scoring position.
"Our goal was to keep the game the way it was," said Red Sox manager Jimy Williams. "We were only one, two hits away from being tied. A lot of good things happened to us today. It could have been worse. Erickson pitched a great game and our pitchers did a great job of not letting runners in."
Rookie Sidney Ponson and Erickson have held the Red Sox to two extra-base hits -- both bases-empty home runs -- the last two games. To the rest of the league, the Orioles seem like well-financed underachievers. To the Red Sox, they are 4-1.
"They're going to send their best guys out every day for the second half. They want to win, and when they come to play they are a very good ballclub," said Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn, who homered Friday.
The Red Sox fell to 2-8 in their past 10 one-run games. They shouldn't seek sympathy from Erickson. Four of his past eight starts have been one-run decisions.
Beaten 1-0 in his previous start by the New York Yankees' David Cone, Erickson closed to within one out of his league-leading seventh complete game. But rather than let him face Vaughn for the game's final out, Miller walked through the boos of 48,244 to replace Erickson with Orosco.
With none on, Miller signaled for the left-hander before he reached the mound. When the manager got there, Erickson had a ready reply.
Miller allowed his "pitching animal" to throw 136 pitches during the July 5 complete-game loss. Now, after 110 pitches, he yanked him in favor of a 41-year-old pitching for a third consecutive day.
"He's a maximum effort guy," Miller said of Erickson. "Complete games are nice, but if Mo Vaughn hits one out, which he almost did the time before, you sit there and kick yourself. He's a competitor. I expect him not to be happy when he comes out of a game."
Stepping into career Game No. 994, Orosco needed only one pitch to get Vaughn on a routine grounder to second. Appearing after a 21-pitch effort Friday night, Orosco has won two games and saved the third in this series. If the Orioles follow through on their inclination to purge a veteran clubhouse, Orosco represents a dark-horse choice as first player traded.
"The trade stuff is there. You think about it. But you try not to let it become an overwhelming concern," said Orosco, who gained his sixth save. "We've put together a nice little streak here to start the second half. It would be nice to keep going and see what happens."
The Orioles' past six games have been decided by one run, and also have been marked for the most part by effective starting pitching. A look:
D...... Opp.. Res......... starter...... IP........ ER
7/3.... NYY...L 3-2....... Mussina.......7 1/3 ........ 2
7/4.... NYY.. L 4-3....... Drabek....... 5......... 4
7/5.... NYY.. L 1-0....... Erickson..... 8......... 1
7/9.... Bos.. W 3-2....... Mussina...... 7......... 2
7/10... Bos.. W 3-2....... Ponson....... 6 2/3 ........ 2
7/11... Bos.. W 2-1....... Erickson..... 8 2/3 ........ 1
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1: 35 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Red Sox's Jin Ho Cho (0-1, 1.50) vs. O's Doug Drabek (5-9, 7.12) Tickets: About 300 remain
Pub Date: 7/12/98