There never will be many style points for Pat Rapp, only a mess of pitches and some tense moments. But as long as they're accompanied by wins, manager Mike Hargrove can live with it.
Handed the keys to a three-game winning streak, Rapp remained in the driver's seat yesterday. He hit a few bumps, the most treacherous coming in the third inning. Regaining control, he kept the Orioles heading in the right direction.
Going more than a week between starts, Rapp gave the Orioles six innings and further reason for optimism, producing an 8-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before 34,536 at Camden Yards in a makeup game that concluded an abbreviated homestand. He allowed two runs, both in the third, in becoming the rotation's winningest pitcher.
Mike Mussina can't buy a victory, no matter how well he throws. Rapp, once projected as the fifth starter before moving up two slots, is 2-0 with a 3.50 ERA and looking quite comfortable in the middle of the pack.
It's not as if the conditions were ideal for Rapp, a free agent over the winter who accepted a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Orioles. He was working on seven days' rest, bringing concerns that he'd be too strong to control his cut fastball.
"I kept them down as best I could," he said. "I was trying to get my legs and my arm to work together. My legs just got a little over-strong and it felt like I was trying to run the ball to the plate every pitch. I felt pretty good my last game and it seems like during the week you want to hurry up and get back on the mound and try to keep the good going, but with the rainouts you want to keep Moose [Mussina] on his pace. Those couple extra days did feel a little different."
The game also featured the first home run for Harold Baines this season, a bases-empty shot with two outs in the fifth inning that increased the lead to 6-2. It was the 374th career homer for Baines, moving him into a tie with Rocky Colavito for 44th place on baseball's all-time list. Baines finished with two RBIs, doubling his total coming into the game.
Shortstop Mike Bordick's hitting streak ended at 14 games dating back to last season, but he produced another RBI, his 20th, to tie Oakland's Jason Giambi for the American League lead going into last night. And most important to the Orioles, their record improved to 9-5.
Last year at this time, the Orioles were 3-11 and spiraling toward another fourth-place finish that would cost Ray Miller his job.
"For any club it's essential to get off to a good start. It makes things so much easier," said Hargrove. "I don't know that many pennants are won in the first two, three weeks of the season, but I guarantee there have been a lot lost. It's essential if you're serious about contending and competing.
"After the last two years, we're in the baby steps now. We'll take the record we've got and be very thankful for it and a little bit chagrined that it's not better than it is. But I think if anybody told us in spring training that we'd be 8-5 after the first 13 games [before yesterday], we'd probably have taken that."
Unlike Wednesday night, when the Orioles were comatose until scoring twice in the seventh inning for Mussina, they jumped Tampa Bay starter Ryan Rupe for three runs in the first and never trailed. Delino DeShields singled with one out and came home on a single to center by B. J. Surhoff. After Albert Belle walked, Baines hit a ground-rule double to center for a 2-0 lead. A grounder by Cal Ripken delivered the third run.
Baines batted .405 with three homers in 16 spring training games, but was slow out of the gate this season. His average rose to .235 yesterday.
Hitting coach Terry Crowley watched Baines during batting practice and told Hargrove the St. Michaels' native hadn't swung the bat that impressively since the club left Florida.
"You always worry. You never assume anything," Hargrove said. "But in this game you've got to believe in track records. You've got to believe in numbers and statistics. And the numbers and the statistics say Harold Baines will hit given the chance. That's when you've got to be patient and trust those track records and trust the ability of your player."
Rapp stranded two runners in the second but wasn't as fortunate in the third. Leadoff walks to former Oriole Ozzie Guillen, one of baseball's most impatient hitters, and Gerald Williams led to two runs. He threw 25 pitches, increasing his total to 55 over three innings.
"It could have been a lot uglier than it was," Hargrove said.
Three-ball counts again had become the norm, but Rapp made it through six innings for the third time in three starts. The Devil Rays got a single and triple in the fifth without scoring, courtesy of a double play in between.
"He made pitches when he needed to," Hargrove said. "He has a tendency to pitch up in the strike zone. He can't do that. I don't know of a pitcher who can pitch consistently up in the strike zone and get away with it. His last couple starts, he had been good about keeping the ball down. I knew that having that many days off and being strong and having the adrenaline flowing, he was going to struggle keeping the ball down. But he got away with some pitches."
A four-run lead in the seventh provided Hargrove with the opportunity to give closer Mike Timlin his first inning since spring training. Activated from the disabled list on Monday, Timlin got two outs before allowing a single to Guillen and a homer to Williams that barely eluded the glove of center fielder Brady Anderson.
"Mike threw the ball well. He got two pitches up to two first-pitch fastball hitters," Hargrove said.
"I was not disappointed in how Mike threw. I thought he showed good velocity and he threw strikes. I thought it was a good first outing for him."
Timlin, who had been sidelined with a torn abdominal muscle, was disappointed in the results but uplifted by his return to the mound.
"It's going to take a little bit of time to get the feel back, but it felt good to be back out there," Timlin said.
"There was no pain, except to my pride."
He couldn't have been hurting any worse than Tampa Bay catcher Mike Difelice, whose two passed balls in the seventh gave back the two runs the Orioles had surrendered. Buddy Groom and Calvin Maduro each tossed a perfect inning, and a fourth consecutive win was in the books.
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Network Associates Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.
Time: 10: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (1-0, 3.27) vs. Athletics' Omar Olivares (1-1, 4.50)