MINNEAPOLIS -- So much for the Orioles' new-and-improved bullpen?
Last night the Orioles again let a game in hand spin out of control, reaffirming the opinion that no lead is now safe. This time, three relievers -- Chuck McElroy, Al Reyes and losing pitcher Buddy Groom -- acted as co-conspirators in a six-run eighth inning that took the Orioles to a numbing 10-9 loss to the Minnesota Twins before 15,249 at the Metrodome.
Already the questions have become repetitive to a bullpen that has surrendered a three-run lead and two others of five runs the last four days.
Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift stepped from manager Mike Hargrove's office afterward with a telling self-interview.
"Am I concerned?" Thrift asked. "Yes."
"Is it acceptable? No."
"Am I pleased? No."
What happens next is uncertain. The Orioles are expected to activate closer Mike Timlin from the disabled list Monday. To make room, they will likely option Gabe Molina or Reyes. Thrift indicated that the decision already has been made.
McElroy fueled the Twins' eighth inning by allowing a bases-loaded situation to sprout with none out. He first claimed responsibility for the loss then insisted, "I guarantee it stops here."
Solid teams may go an entire season without blowing two five-run leads. The Orioles have squandered leads of 6-0 and 9-4 the last three days. Including this week's three-game sweep in Kansas City, the bullpen has surrendered 16 earned runs in its past 11 innings pitched.
Hargrove has long differentiated between concern and worry. He admitted to concern earlier this week. He won't confess to worry.
"I think it's too early [to worry]. You have to ask yourself the question: Which bullpen is the real one? The one that pitched the first six games of the season or the one that's pitched the last four? I choose to believe it's the one that pitched the first homestand," Hargrove said. "I think getting Timlin back will help. I don't think it's a cure-all. Late in the game we have to throw strikes, get ahead of hitters and make them beat us and not add to the problem. As a group, we just haven't done that."
After receiving six competent innings from surprise starter Jose Mercedes, the eighth-inning tag team of McElroy, Reyes and Groom was exposed by the ultimate small-market, small-talent lineup. Five hits, two walks and a sacrifice fly extended the Orioles' losing streak to four games and left them with their third loss in four days when leading after seven innings. Sixteen hits, including three home runs and another step by Cal Ripken toward 3,000 hits, were muffled by a collapse that left Hargrove red-faced.
"Anytime you score nine runs in a game, you should win those games," he said.
The Orioles have seen this before. Eventually, late-inning losses tend to bleed into one another. Talent is trumped by a crisis of confidence.
"The way we've lost the last four games, we've taken leads into the eighth inning three times out of four That's very unusual," Hargrove said. "I think human nature says after a while people start thinking about that. I don't think it's a problem. If it continues, I think it will be. But it's one of those things you have to fight through. We'll get through this and we'll be better for it."
Whatever happened in Kansas City during this week's three-game sweep merely served as a warm-up act for a meltdown in which the Orioles led the Twins 4-1, 8-3 and 9-4 only to fold ineptly.
The Twins began the eighth by loading the bases with none out against McElroy then jumped all over the lost Reyes. Matt LeCroy and Torii Hunter doubled to pull the Twins within 9-8, Christian Guzman's single scored Hunter for the tie and Matt Lawton's sacrifice fly put the Twins ahead.
The final indignity arrived in the ninth. Representing the tie run, Albert Belle was picked off first base for the second out.
Afterward, Thrift thought it appropriate for this team to be at least 7-3. The Orioles can rightly say they should be 9-1. They can accurately say they are 5-5 because of a bullpen set on self-destruct.
"They're good people out there. They have good stuff. They've been successful in the big leagues before and I think they'll be successful again," Hargrove said.
Coming off a 2-for-12 struggle in Kansas City, Ripken started a three-run rally in the second innning by dropping a single into right field for his 2,997th hit. If not for a leaping catch by left fielder Jacque Jones in the fifth inning, Ripken would have enjoyed his first multi-hit game of the season.
Last night's breakout wasn't done until B. J. Surhoff had cracked four hits, Mike Bordick had extended his three-day RBI rampage and every starter had hit safely. First baseman Jeff Conine homered among three hits. But the Orioles provided an ugly finish to a game made odd before it had even begun. Listed as the game's scheduled starter ever since last weekend, Calvin Maduro was ostensibly bumped from a scheduled start hours before first pitch.
The switch was actually first discussed between Hargrove and pitching coach Sammy Ellis during the team's charter from Baltimore to Kansas City on Monday. The decision was made Tuesday.
"He told me the reason," Maduro said. "I don't remember what it was."
Hargrove treated the switch as nothing major, insisting, "There's no intrigue at all."
Hargrove explained the schedule factored heaviest in the move.
Mercedes is almost exactly two years removed from shoulder surgery and, according to his manager, is less prepared to pitch on three days' rest than Maduro. Hargrove must decide between the two on April 19. Had Maduro made last night's start, Mercedes would have not remained an option.
"If I have to ask someone to start on [three] days' rest, Mercedes can't and Maduro can," Hargrove said. "That's basically what it comes down to."
Asked whether he may have helped his standing, Mercedes said, "I don't think I pitched well. But I pitched well enough to win."
Whatever happens, Mercedes can say he outpitched one of the game's most promising young left-handers as the Orioles pounded Maryland alumnus Eric Milton for six runs and three home runs.
Bordick continued what has grown into one of the league's best offensive starts. He extended a season-long hitting streak to 10 games with a two-out, three-run homer in the second inning. He has 16 RBIs in 38 at-bats this season.
The Twins drew to 3-1 but were answered by Conine's home run in the fourth and Delino DeShields' during a two-run fifth. A wild pitch and center fielder Rich Amaral's two-out single extended the Orioles' lead to 8-3.
The issue no longer was who was starting for Hargrove, but who could finish. Answers are pending.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Calvin Maduro (0-0, 13.50) vs. Twins' Sean Bergman (0-0, 9.72)