Should the Orioles' belated push for a wild-card berth fail, they doubtless will recall their failings at home against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The expansion team only deepened the impression last night by stealing a 4-2 decision that briefly looked like it might go the Orioles' way.
Another opponent exploited the Orioles' glaring defensive weakness -- an inability to hold runners and then catch base stealers. When frustrated, the Devil Rays took what they wanted by stealing three times in the eighth and ninth innings. The payoff was two runs that obliterated the Orioles' good work of the seventh inning.
Thanks to their 8-2 afternoon loss in Kansas City, the Boston Red Sox handed the Orioles a chance to pull within six games of the AL wild card. The Orioles failed to take advantage of a favorable pitching matchup and two critical early scoring chances. The result left them with a 5-7 season mark against the Devil Rays and seven games behind the Red Sox with only 35 to play.
"If one loss is going to turn you off or frustrate you, you've got no chance," Orioles manager Ray Miller said. "The way I figure, we lost a day today, that's all."
Usually adept at losing close games, the Devil Rays broke a 2-2 game by transforming the stolen bases into single runs in the eighth and ninth against a slow-to-home bullpen. They also had scored in the seventh inning on the frustrating combination of a single, a passed ball, a walk, a hit batter and a sacrifice fly. Their payoff: a 5-1 record at Camden Yards.
The 68-59 Orioles answered with only four hits, including seventh-inning home runs by Cal Ripken and B. J. Surhoff. On this night, speed crushed power.
"The last two runs were caused by their stealing bases. But we had only four hits," Miller said. "We had some chances early. If we get a key base hit early in the game, we've got a chance to keep them from running."
Instead, the Orioles answered Glen Burnie left-hander Tony Saunders' early wildness with rally-killing double plays in the first two innings. Rather than play from ahead, the Orioles trailed 1-0 after four innings, drew even in the seventh, then became disoriented by the Devil Rays' late jailbreak.
Saunders, who captured his fourth win in 25 starts, allowed seven runners in seven innings.
"He walked three. I thought he could've walked a few more. He's got nasty stuff," Miller said. "We swung at some bad pitches to get two strikes on us. But that's easy for me to say. I'm not up there."
Miller found more fault with his bullpen than catcher Lenny Webster. The Devil Rays stole an important base against Arthur Rhodes (3-4) in the eighth and two more off Pete Smith in the ninth.
"When you have a pitcher who's slow to the plate, that's going to help. That's one of the problems we had earlier in the year," Miller said. "We didn't do a good job of holding runners, we missed some signs. We had two clean pickoffs today and we missed signs both times. That can't happen in close ballgames like tonight."
In 12 games the Devil Rays stole 13 of 17 attempts against the Orioles, a poor ratio against a team that has caught only 19.1 percent of would-be base stealers.
Quinton McCracken's leadoff single against Rhodes in the eighth inning led to a stolen base, a well-placed ground ball and a hanging changeup to third baseman Bobby Smith that became a sacrifice fly for a 3-2 lead.
Miller had gone to the mound just before Smith's fly ball, telling Rhodes to pitch around Smith but not to intentionally walk him with cleanup man Fred McGriff on deck.
Randy Winn bumped the lead to 4-2 in the ninth when he singled, stole second base, stole third and scored on Miguel Cairo's flared single to center field. Webster had little chance on either steal. The Orioles, who have made a habit of playing from ahead in the second half, were again caught flat-footed on level ground. This time reliever Pete Smith was charged with one run and failing to hold runners.
The loss spoiled a seventh-inning rally that revolved around home runs by Ripken and Surhoff. Ripken's was also the 2,848th hit of his career, tying Brooks Robinson for most in club history. Surhoff's completed a three-hit night against Saunders.
Also wasted was a strong outing by Orioles starter Juan Guzman, who surrendered four hits and two runs in 6 1/3 innings but narrowly avoided the loss.
"It was a good game," Guzman said, "good enough to win."
Center fielder Brady Anderson left the game in the second inning when he crashed into the outfield wall in pursuit of Bubba Trammell's double. Anderson missed the ball but jammed his right knee and left game with a sprained patella tendon. X-rays proved negative but his status is uncertain.
The Devil Rays flexed the night's only speed. Webster and Chris Hoiles have caught 34 of 178 base-stealers, a ratio helped by pickoffs and Mike Mussina's noted ability to hold runners. The latest spectacle rekindled a problem largely muted by the Orioles' recent ability to play from ahead.
"A lot of people are going to look at Chris and myself," Webster said. "But when you're not given a chance, it doesn't matter what you do."
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Indians' Jaret Wright (10-7, 4.70) vs. Orioles' Scott Kamieniecki (2-5, 6.40)
Tickets: Scattered singles remain
AL wild-card race
............ W-L ..... Pct. ... GB
Boston ..... 74-51 ... .592 ... --
Orioles .... 68-59 ... .535 ... 7
Texas ...... 67-59 ... .532 ... 7 1/2
Pub Date: 8/21/98