MINNEAPOLIS -- Welcome to September baseball in the land franchise relocation created then forgot. Here, where fans may throw their voices only to hear them come back, Scott Erickson threw another dominant outing against his former club, the Minnesota Twins, in a 5-0 win before 9,263 at the Metrodome. As long as the game survives in the Great White North, the Orioles will always have somewhere to go heal.
For Erickson, who threw a three-hitter, history repeated itself. The complete-game shutout was his second against the Twins in 21 days. It also elevated the Orioles to 23-5 against the Twins since 1996.
Only 45-68 against the rest of the American League, the Orioles improved to 6-1 against their small-market competition.
Albert Belle's fourth-inning home run and 98th RBI allowed the Orioles to take a 1-0 lead against Twins starter Joe Mays (5-8). A six-hit barrage in the seventh inning pumped the lead to 5-0 while featuring Cal Ripken's career hit No. 2,973 and a piece of rookie second baseman Jerry Hairston's three-hit night.
Otherwise, this was just another predictable evening in an American League purgatory where the Twins barely draw 15,000 a game -- an improvement over last season. Only the Montreal Expos exhibit less support. A nerve-racking, deafening place when the Twins captured World Series titles in 1987 and 1991, the Metrodome now serves as a neutral setting where teams can give a 20-year-old prospect his major-league debut without fear of trauma. Or, in Erickson's case, a place to culminate a five-month salvage operation.
"It's a lot better than I was doing. I started out in a bad groove, then busted my tail to get back. I didn't give up," said Erickson.
For the second time in three weeks the Twins provided little resistance against Erickson (12-11), who peeked above .500 for the first time this season by improving to 10-3 since June 4. He is only one win shy of his fifth consecutive season of at least 13 victories.
On Aug. 18 Erickson heaved a five-hit shutout at the Twins. Last night he pushed for his third shutout this season. The performance was convincing enough that manager Ray Miller didn't stir his bullpen until the ninth inning.
Erickson held the third-place Twins to three singles while facing only five more than the minimum number of hitters. True to his recent form, Erickson didn't rely on strikeouts. (He had three, two in the ninth inning.)
Instead, the grandmaster of the heavy sinker received double plays in the first and seventh innings while surrendering inconsequential singles to Jacque Jones, Matt Lawton and Doug Mientkiewicz. Erickson induced 19 ground-ball outs, including at least two in every inning.
After the second inning Erickson settled into a familiar cruise. He retired 13 consecutive hitters until allowing a leadoff walk in the seventh inning. A double play immediately erased the mistake.
Erickson offered style as well. He ended the game by striking out Twins second baseman Todd Walker on consecutive curveballs, a pitch he has previously embraced like a communicable disease.
"He's made some adjustments. He and Bruce [Kison] have worked on changeups and curveballs," said Miller. "With Scotty, it's just a matter of getting the ball down and staying there. Earlier in the year I don't know if he was trying to be too quick to the plate or what. He is quicker to the plate."
Reluctant to celebrate because of his team's standing, Erickson reluctantly recognizes the breadth of his turnaround. Frustrated by uncomfortable mechanics and what he considered a poorly planned spring training, Erickson survived only 25 innings in April, didn't gain his first win until May 9 and was dangled for trade as recently as two weeks ago after the Cleveland Indians made a waiver claim on him. Today he leads the Orioles in innings pitched, is second to Mike Mussina in wins and will likely lead the AL in ground-ball ratio for a fourth straight season.
"I still get a little irritated for messing myself up early in the season. If I started off where I am now I could've had a pretty good year. I wasted two months," Erickson said.
The 62-76 Orioles managed only two hits through six innings but came alive in the seventh after Ripken grounded a single past third base. Hairston's second of three hits scored Ripken for a 2-0 lead. Designated hitter Brady Anderson followed with an RBI single to right field and Mike Bordick chased Mays with the inning's sixth hit, which scored center fielder Eugene Kingsale for a five-run lead.
The rest was hardly surprising. Since losing to the Twins on July 24, 1996, Erickson has beaten them eight times in 10 starts. He has twice received no decision. However, Erickson's ability to right a season that began disastrously represents one of the year's most remarkable turnarounds.
"I've never had a command problem. Sometimes the ball moves out of the zone. There were a couple pretty decent pitches tonight that could have gone either way," said Erickson.
"I'm not worried about command. If I walk the bases loaded I can get a double play. As long as your mechanics are pretty smooth and consistent, command is going to be pretty accurate."
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis
Time: 8: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jason Johnson (5-7, 6.20) vs. Twins' LaTroy Hawkins (9-11, 6.45)
Pub Date: 9/08/99