OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Orioles have found another way to compensate for a pitching staff that has yet to take its final shape: Simply grab a bat and beat your opponent's eyes shut.
The approach again worked to perfection last night. Checked for a 1-1 game through four innings, they pummeled Oakland A's starting pitcher Omar Olivares and reliever Doug Jones for 10 middle-inning runs in what ended as an 11-9 beating before 11,802 at Network Associates Coliseum.
The win was the Orioles' fifth in a row, bumped their record to 10-5 and featured three hits by second baseman Delino DeShields and another milestone reached for Cal Ripken, who homered and drove in four runs before being excused after 6 1/2 innings.
The breakout also overcame Sidney Ponson's fuzzy start and another bullpen eighth-inning misadventure.
A night of good work nearly disintegrated during a six-run eighth inning that sent three Orioles relievers to the mound and 10 A's to the plate. Two scored on a passed ball and a wild pitch and left-hander Buddy Groom had to face down the tying run at the plate before Mike Timlin allowed it as far as second base in the ninth.
Manager Mike Hargrove so believed the game in hand that he had pulled Ripken and cleanup hitter Albert Belle early. He was rewarded with a flashback to last week when the Orioles blew leads of six, five and three runs.
"As far as there being a positive, we got a win out of it," Hargrove said of nearly blowing an 11-3 lead. "We won the game. You don't expect it to be like that going into the seventh inning, but that happens sometimes. The bottom line is we won the game."
In that eighth inning, Chuck McElroy mixed in one out among five hits; Mike Trombley followed to nearly clear the bases with balls in the dirt.
"That's not me out there," said McElroy, a 12-year veteran, who with five earned runs, saw his ERA balloon to 24.00. "That's the most frustrating part. That's not the way I pitch. It can't keep happening. It's happening."
Former A's pitcher Groom retired the final hitter in the eighth before Timlin covered the ninth for his 100th career save.
In a season in which no lead is safe, Timlin had to fight through his first save situation and only second game since coming off the disabled list. After consecutive one-out, four-pitch walks to Ramon Hernandez and Eric Chavez, Timlin hit pinch-hitter John Jaha with a pitch to load the bases. Timlin then got former Oriole Rich Becker to pop out and Miguel Tejada to line out.
A walk in the park was successfully transformed into a high-wire act. "We gave them momentum," Charles Johnson said. "We had it going all our way in the beginning."
The Orioles have scored first in 11 of 15 games, going 8-3. Their first-strike tendency has been a boost at a time when the rotation has operated without No. 2 starter Scott Erickson and with a twosome, Jose Mercedes and Calvin Maduro, that has averaged five innings in its four starts.
Pat Rapp, the de facto No. 3 starter until Erickson's anticipated return April 30, has emerged as the staff's favored son. He has pitched exactly six innings in each of three starts, won twice and missed a third victory only because of a butter-fingered bullpen. He has trailed for one-half inning this year, a significant statistic for someone prone to nibbling at corners.
Ponson, who also has had a win sacrificed by bullpen inconsistency, hasn't trailed since surrendering a five-run second inning to the Cleveland Indians in the season's second game.
Coming off his first career shutout in Minnesota last Sunday, Ponson was hardly as sharp but just as dogged against an A's lineup that had won four of its last five games.
The Orioles led after three hitters last night when Brady Anderson and B. J. Surhoff slashed first-inning doubles. A potential breakout fizzled when A's shortstop Tejada turned Harold Baines' scalded ground ball into a 6-4-3 double play.
Tejada, one of the A's burgeoning crop of talented, young players, signed a four-year, $11.3 million extension before yesterday's game. He threatened to single-handedly turn the game with a series of brilliant defensive plays. Ripken lost a fourth-inning single on another Tejada catch-and-throw. (Asked to complete a 3-6-3 double play in the sixth inning, however, Tejada threw wildly.)
Ponson listed again early but wouldn't budge. Just as the Orioles had done, they scored before sending their fourth hitter to the plate. Becker led off with a single, advanced on a ground ball and scored on Jason Giambi's single.
There, Ponson halted the A's offense. By the time they pushed another runner to third base, the Orioles led 6-1 and every starter except Belle had hit safely.
Before last night's game Hargrove mused how a lineup that entered with a .304 average could get even better. Surhoff was hitting a "quiet" .356 with one home run and seven RBIs. Belle's two home runs, 12 RBIs and .308 average might represent a solid April for a traditionally slow starter but hardly scratches the surface of the cleanup hitter's potential. Baines entered the game with three RBIs in 51 at-bats.
The Orioles' improved situational hitting helped them in a two-run fifth inning. Bordick grounded over second base to score Will Clark. With two outs, Delino DeShields singled to left for his third hit, scoring Johnson for a 3-1 lead.
Ponson received three needed additional runs in the sixth inning thanks to three singles and Tejada's misplay. Bordick contributed his second RBI, jacking his season total to 22, after Ripken delivered Belle with a looping single.
Once again the Orioles stumbled while carrying a huge lead. Ponson couldn't get through the bottom of the inning. With one out, Olmedo Saenz reached after Belle dropped a foul pop. Initially (and correctly) scored an error, an Orioles public relations employee successfully lobbied for a scoring change.
The unintended result was an additional earned run for Ponson when A's right fielder and Oriole-killer Matt Stairs slammed his third home run in as many games, cutting the lead to 6-3.
Ponson (2-0) became the first member of the Orioles' starting trio that includes Mike Mussina and Rapp not to clear six innings. His two-out walk of Eric Chavez brought the tying run to the plate and B. J. Ryan on to dispose of pinch hitter Jeremy Giambi on a line drive to left field.
Threatened, the Orioles did something rarely seen a year ago. They attacked reliever Doug Jones for a five-run seventh that began with DeShields' infield single, included Belle's first hit and didn't end until Ripken had driven his fourth home run just beyond the 367-foot marker in left field.
Ripken's three-run homer left him with 1,583 career RBIs, tying Al Kaline for 29th all-time. The hit, Ripken's 3,004th, left him only three shy of a tie with Kaline for 22nd all-time.
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Network Associates Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.
Time: 4: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jose Mercedes (1-0, 5.73) vs. Athletics' Gil Heredia (1-1, 2.84)