Little flaws add up to 7-6 O's loss; Jones' bid, Belle HRs fall just shy of Indians in mirror of season; Rookie Ramirez has 5 RBIs; Pitch selection, failed bunt aid 25th 1-run loss

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A converted reliever, Doug Johns was good enough to pitch into yesterday's eighth inning, just long enough to gain an ill-deserved loss.

The bottom third of the Orioles' batting order was tough enough to begin the ninth inning with three straight hits, just enough to force a one-run game against Cleveland Indians closer Mike Jackson, who then escaped with a 7-6 win thanks to a too-hard bunt and a one-hop double play.

Right fielder Albert Belle hit two home runs, enough to make him the third player in four days to contribute four RBIs in a loss.

Pick a flaw within this Orioles' disappointing season and it likely contributed to this loss. After leading 3-0, the Orioles were punished by Indians rookie right fielder Alex Ramirez's five-RBI day and a tie-breaking eighth-inning single by former compadre Roberto Alomar. The bullpen again leaked and an eleventh-hour rally died.

"The little things sometimes go unnoticed but at other times they stand out," said Bordick. "Obviously they affected today's game." The 61-76

Orioles extended a season stigmatized by an inability to perform subtle chores with their second one-run loss of the series.

Manager Ray Miller's frustration became complete when Ramirez's three-run triple in the eighth came on a fastball that he thought wrong for the situation.

Belle contributed a three-run homer for a 3-0 lead in the third inning then followed with a bases-empty blast in the eighth to pull the Orioles within 7-4. However, the power of Belle's fourth multi-homer game this season and 37th of his career were overwhelmed by the Orioles' inability to prevent stolen bases or bunt runners along.

The Orioles rallied to within 7-6 in the ninth, but after Bordick's would-be sacrifice was covered brilliantly by Jackson for a fielder's choice, the game ended on B. J. Surhoff's one-hop double-play ball to Alomar with the winning run at first and Belle on deck.

"There were all kinds of could-be's and would-be's in that game," said Miller. "On the last pitch, we've got two fast guys out there and you'd like to start them [on a full count], but if B. J. swings and misses the game's over and you've got Albert Belle with two home runs standing at home plate."

The Orioles' 25 one-run losses trail only the Kansas City Royals. While scrambling to avoid their first last-place finish since 1988, the Orioles also have outscored opponents, 725-715, this season. They are the only American League team with a losing record to enjoy such an advantage.

Of the Orioles' 76 losses, 37 have come by one or two runs -- a staggering 48.7 percent. The Orioles are only 25-37 (.403) in close games, having lost 22 times when leading or tied after six innings. Unfortunately, there is no chronicle of how many times this veteran team has lost after conceding a stolen base, giving away outs on the bases or falling down when situational hitting is required.

"I think when you've lost that many close ballgames you realize it was just a matter of a play here or a pitch there or not getting a hit. Obviously, those add up," said Bordick. "It just proves how important every inning, every pitch and every opportunity is."

A little of everything happened in the Orioles' ninth loss in 10 games against the Central leaders.

Indians starter Dave Burba (13-7) almost escaped the third inning when catcher Mike Figga attempted to steal on a full count to Brady Anderson. When Anderson took strike three, Figga was thrown out for a double play.

Burba brought more problems on himself by walking Bordick and Surhoff to reach Belle, a career .500 hitter against him. Belle then smoked a breaking pitch for a 3-0 lead.

With his latest breakout, Belle tied Surhoff for the team RBI lead (97) after trailing by 18 at the All-Star break and closed on his eighth consecutive 100-RBI season. In the last 10 days the Orioles' cleanup hitter has tied a franchise record with four doubles in an Aug. 29 win over Detroit, contributed two RBIs and manufactured the third in a 3-1 win against Tampa Bay on Sept. 1, and yesterday added his 31st and 32nd home runs. Derided for rough outfield play in the first half, Belle also has a chance to lead the American League in outfield assists.

Yet like much else, Belle's positives have been steamrolled by five months of collective underachievement and uncertainty.

Johns (4-3) carried a two-hit shutout through six innings but was ambushed in the seventh. After needing only 76 pitches to clear six innings, Johns allowed Manny Ramirez's leadoff double to the base of the right-center-field wall in the seventh. The Indians then stole his lead on back-to-back pitches. Richie Sexson scored Ramirez with a single, and on the next offering, Alex Ramirez cracked his second home run to force a 3-3 game.

Allowed to begin the eighth inning, Johns walked Dave Roberts and was chased by Omar Vizquel's sacrifice. "The eighth inning was the tough shot," said Miller. "He wanted to go back out there. He had 90 [pitches]."

Miller imported Jesse Orosco to face Alomar, 0-for-10 lifetime vs. the ancient left-hander. However, the strategy became complicated when Roberts took a walking lead off Orosco and stole third. Alomar punched a single through a drawn infield for a 4-3 lead.

Facing the suddenly hittable right-hander Al Reyes, Manny Ramirez doubled and Jim Thome was intentionally walked. Alex Ramirez, recently mentioned in trade talks between the two teams, then completed his career day by tripling to right-center, clearing the bases for a 7-3 lead.

Miller commented that his staff had been urged to feed Ramirez breaking pitches yet the right fielder beat them on fastballs.

"The bottom line is their seventh hitter drove in five runs against us, the last one on a fastball that wasn't supposed to be thrown but we did," said Miller.

Singles by Derrick May, Jerry Hairston and Delino DeShields pulled the Orioles to within 7-5 in the ninth. Jackson lost an out when Anderson's grounder deflected off the stiff-moving Thome at first, allowing Hairston to score.

Still with no one out, Bordick bunted firmly toward third, but Jackson sprinted from the mound and fired for the force against the lead runner. Surhoff then worked a full count and lined a one-hop shot at Alomar. The result was predictable on a day when the Orioles were good enough to almost win.

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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