SEATTLE -- In the aftermath of their unfathomable, 6-5 loss to the Seattle Mariners yesterday, the Orioles moved beyond a crisis of confidence regarding Armando Benitez. It now must be described as a total lack of confidence.
Benitez, still considered the Orioles' closer despite going without a save since Aug. 19, surrendered a three-run homer to Ken Griffey with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning as the Mariners turned a 5-2 deficit into only their second late-inning win of the season.
Losers of 13 of 15, the Orioles see Benitez's latest failure as symptomatic of a season beyond repair.
How else does a team lose despite having 19 base runners and getting 5 1/3 competent innings from starting pitcher Scott Erickson?
How else does a team hold Griffey and fellow All-Star Alex Rodriguez to 2-for-15 through the first 16 innings of the series, then watch the duo crush them on consecutive swings in the 17th?
"We outplayed them for [seven] innings, but we gave up four in the [eighth]. That cost us the game," said manager Ray Miller. "We left a lot of guys on base, but still it was enough to win. Jesse [Orosco] and Armando didn't get the job done."
Orosco began the eighth and allowed two of three hitters he faced to single, bringing the tying run to the plate and Benitez into the game. After getting pinch hitter Jay Buhner on a fly ball for the second out, Benitez got ahead of Rodriguez but couldn't finish him, falling to a full count before Rodriguez fought off an inside fastball that skipped past Roberto Alomar for an RBI single.
Rather than summon well-rested left-hander Arthur Rhodes to face Griffey, Miller stayed with Benitez. Griffey was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Benitez, but 7-for-23 with three home runs against Rhodes.
Reduced to one pitch because of a poor slider, Benitez fell behind 3-0 to Griffey, threw a strike, then ran a fastball away.
Griffey slashed it for his 48th home run and suddenly the Mariners were 2-59 when trailing after seven innings. It was the Orioles' sixth loss when leading after seven.
Benitez has failed to hold only three of 22 save chances, but his halting development has exhausted Miller's patience. Even worse, many of the teammates enraged by his on-field behavior at Yankee Stadium May 19 now consider Benitez a write-off.
"He doesn't have the mind-set," said one Oriole. "He wasn't close at the start of the season and he's no closer now."
The supporters who cite his arm strength and intimidating physical presence are now far outnumbered by those who insist Benitez lacks the mental toughness to carry a contender. Randy Myers never won clubhouse popularity contests, but he commanded universal respect for what Miller calls an "assassin's mentality."
Right now, Miller sees the only team Benitez killing to be his own.
The manager tried to defend Benitez following a lapse in Cleveland last month. Yesterday's collapse moved him to admit that he may be unable to recommend Benitez as next season's closer.
"Obviously, it has to better than what we've seen this year," Miller said. "As far as how far the maturation process has come, or will come, remains to be seen."
Benitez left the clubhouse quickly with little comment. For the first time this season, he barely chose to address a tough outing.
"I got the first two guys, 1-2, 1-2," said Benitez. "After that, if the manager wants to blame me, fine. That's all I've got to say."
Erickson was denied his 15th win after delivering 112 pitches. The Mariners reached him for a second-inning run on three consecutive singles by Rob Ducey, Russ Davis and Raul Ibanez. A sacrifice and a hit batter loaded the bases with one out, but Erickson held the game to 1-0 by striking out Shane Monahan and getting Rodriguez to ground into a fielder's choice.
The Orioles answered with two runs in the fourth inning, thanks to a hustle play by Cal Ripken.
Running from first to third on B. J. Surhoff's single to center, Ripken drew a wild throw from Griffey that sailed into the Mariners' dugout.
The error allowed Ripken to score while putting Surhoff at third base. From there, he easily scored on Lenny Webster's deep fly ball.
One day after signing a $1.5 million contract for 1999, designated hitter Harold Baines pressed the lead to 4-1 with a two-run, 445-foot homer into the upper deck.
The Mariners reached Erickson for a run in the bottom of the inning and the Orioles answered in the seventh when Surhoff scored Ripken with a single.
Pub Date: 9/06/98