KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Orioles have happened upon a familiar problem. For a second consecutive night their bullpen couldn't be trusted.
In a meltdown disturbingly similar to a past they hoped to have left behind, relievers Buddy Groom and Mike Trombley could not hold a seventh-inning, 6-1 lead left by starter Pat Rapp. The calamity ended in a 7-6 loss to the Kansas City Royals when light-hitting shortstop Rey Sanchez ripped Trombley, the Orioles' closer of the moment, for a three-run, walk-off home run before a crowd of 15,228 at Kauffman Stadium.
The collapse overshadowed Cal Ripken's 2,996th career hit and a strong performance by the club's de facto No. 3 starter, Pat Rapp. Sanchez entered this season with only 11 career home runs in 2,768 at-bats but crushed Trombley's 3-1 pitch off the top of the left-field fence.
The Orioles led 6-0 entering the Royals' seventh but left it with but a two-run lead, in part due to Albert Belle's misplay in shallow right field. In the ninth, a leadoff walk by Gregg Zaun was followed by a line drive that was misplayed for a double by center fielder Brady Anderson. Trombley fell behind Sanchez, 3-0, fed him a strike and on the next pitch saw his mistake disappear for the Royals' third game-winning homer in as many days.
"We should have won that game no ifs, ands or buts," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove.
The Royals beat the Orioles, 7-5, on Tuesday when middle reliever Al Reyes couldn't hold a three-run lead in the eighth inning. The fallout leaves the Orioles a stunned 5-3 instead of 7-1.
"We've played well enough to be 7-1. In a couple of losses we've been our own worst enemy," Hargrove said. "We've caught a Royals team that's hot and did the same thing to the Twins when they were in town. But, yeah, I think we've played well enough to be 7-1."
Hargrove had held Trombley out of Tuesday's eighth inning. Last night he hurried him into the game after Groom walked the tying run to the plate.
Ripken's 2,996th hit came with one out in the seventh inning when he looped an opposite-field single off reliever Jerry Spradlin to score B. J. Surhoff for a 6-0 lead. While able to prevent Ripken's first multi-hit game of the season, the Royals were unable to stifle the scalding combination of catcher Charles Johnson and shortstop Mike Bordick, which accounted for four of the Orioles' first six hits and their first five RBIs.
Rapp gave a strong impersonation of a No. 3 starter, holding the Royals to three hits and four base runners through six innings. This wasn't the high-pitch "Full Count" Rapp who dodged two jams in a 6-2 win April 6. Rapp consistently got ahead of hitters and pitched down in the zone. Through six innings, the Royals managed only two fly ball outs.
How long Rapp will hold the third spoke of the starting rotation is unknown. What is known is that he has represented a credible presence in Scott Erickson's absence.
Jason Johnson, projected as the No. 4 starter before spring training, continues to sort out control problems at Triple-A Rochester and could also be promoted within two to three weeks. Rapp, meanwhile, has given the Orioles at least six innings in both starts.
Speed and aggressiveness have proven a potent mix against the Orioles, who haven't swept a series at Kauffman Stadium since 1992. Last night, they were neutralized -- for the first six innings anyway.
Rejuvenated Delino DeShields has even made speed an ally. He ran himself into scoring position twice with stolen bases in the first and fifth innings, his fifth and sixth this season.
The game turned in the fourth. For the fourth time in eight games, Johnson made himself the rallying point for a rally after the Royals extended the inning on first baseman Mike Sweeney's one-out error.
Harold Baines reached base when Sweeney lunged to his right but couldn't glove the grounder. Mac Suzuki walked Ripken before striking out Will Clark for the second out. Johnson, who three times had given the Orioles leads with home runs in their five wins, crushed a double into the left-center-field gap. Baines scored easily and Ripken chugged home from first base unchallenged.
Somehow overlooked for Player of the Week recognition, Johnson's double left him with a league-high 14 RBIs -- as many as he generated last season in the team's first 38 games.
Bordick followed Johnson with a single that extended his season-long hitting streak to eight games and scored Johnson for a 3-0 lead.
The Orioles pressed their lead in the sixth inning, again with Johnson serving as catalyst.
Suzuki hit Clark with one out and Johnson pulled a ball toward the left-field corner for his second double in as many at-bats.
Royals manager Tony Muser had seen enough from Suzuki and called Spradlin from his all-right-handed bullpen to face Bordick. Bordick rifled a sinking line drive that Damon attempted to catch but whiffed on instead. Bordick drove in both runners for a 5-0 lead and his ninth and 10th RBIs.
Like Johnson, Bordick already has bettered last year's April production.
Hargrove summoned Groom in the seventh and the inning began to unravel. Zaun looped a fly ball to shallow right field. Belle charged but, sensing DeShields retreating from second base, pulled off the play, allowing the flare to fall for a single. A walk to pinch hitter Mark Quinn scored a second run. Consecutive sacrifice fly balls, one that took Belle to the right-field wall, pulled the Royals to within 6-4.
Opponent: Kansas City Royals
Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
Time: 2: 05 p.m. TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Mike Mussina (0-1, 2.87) vs. Royals' Jeff Suppan (1-0, 4.91)