O's bullpen bombs in the Bronx

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Anyone hoping for the Orioles to make a statement in Friday night's series opener against the New York Yankees came away devastated. The message was unmistakable: The Orioles carry a troubled bullpen.

On a night when they might have rejoiced over Scott Erickson's return or second baseman Delino DeShields' four-hit, four-run night, the Orioles were stunned by another late-inning collapse that ended on catcher Jorge Posada's three-run homer off rookie B.J. Ryan for a 12-10 win before 42,244 at a riotous Yankee Stadium.

The Orioles carried a 10-8 lead into the inning then watched Mike Timlin surrender a leadoff home run to Paul O'Neill and a single to Bernie Williams before being replaced by Ryan.

Ryan walked Tino Martinez on a full count. Then, with the Orioles anticipating a bunt from Posada, they suffered whiplash when Posada crunched a drive into the left-field bleachers. Ryan (1-2) suffered the loss and Timlin experienced the latest setback in his return from a muscle pull that has jeopardized his role as closer.

Catonsville's Jeff Nelson (5-0) pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings for the win as the Yankees' bullpen improved to 9-0 despite allowing three runs.

The Orioles were guilty of squandering leads of 8-5 and 10-8 against a team that torments them at every turn.

"You hate to score 10 runs, not make any errors and lose a ballgame," manager Mike Hargrove said. "That's not supposed to happen."

With Williams on second base and Martinez at first and no one out in the ninth, the Orioles were convinced Posada would bunt. Instead, he wheeled on Ryan's first pitch. "It was just a bad pitch all the way around. It was right down the middle, thigh-high. You can't make that pitch at that time of the ballgame," Ryan said.

And suddenly a night that offered positives had become another bizarre loss in this Bronx house of horrors.

Erickson completed a surgery-scarred two-month odyssey that began when he awoke unable to straighten his right elbow one February morning, He gave the Orioles six innings and further reason to believe that their rotation is potentially among the American League's elite this season.

"I felt pretty good. I've got a ways to go, though," said Erickson, who yielded eight hits and five runs. "I'd sure hope I'm much better than this three or four starts from now."

DeShields, untradeable this spring but suddenly indispensable within an offense largely devoid of speed, broke an 8-8 tie with his fourth hit - a one-out double - in the eighth inning off Yankees reliever Mike Stanton. He then stole third and scored on a sacrifice fly to create a 10-8 game the bullpen couldn't hold. For the fourth time this season, the Orioles lost a lead of three runs or more after the seventh inning.

Last night's meltdown resurrected concerns that have followed this bullpen since spring training. Beginning with the strained abdominal muscle that forced him to the disabled list Opening Day, Timlin has yet to reacclimate himself to his role.

He entered the game believing himself close. The game ended with Hargrove and him facing a fresh round of questions about his status.

Allowed to start the ninth inning, Timlin was quickly gone after getting ahead of O'Neill, 0-and-2, then allowing him to hit a leadoff homer into the right-field bleachers. Williams followed with a single and Hargrove called upon the 24-year-old Ryan.

Timlin was asked which irritated him most - surrendering the two hits or not being allowed to finish what he had begun.

"Yes ... Yes, I am," he answered, refusing to go any further.

Hargrove was concerned enough about what he saw that he called upon a left-handed rookie without a major-league save to bail out his closer.

Ryan had warmed alongside Timlin in the eighth inning but sat down when the ninth began. Hargrove made the decision to pull Timlin so quickly that Ryan could take only four more warm-up tosses in the bullpen before being summoned.

"I thought [Timlin] had gotten O'Neill 0-and-2 and then given up a home run and the next pitch was a rocket to Williams. I felt with Tino [Martinez] coming up it was not going in the direction we hoped that it would and felt like B.J. gave us the best chance to win the game right there," Hargrove said.

"His move to make," said Timlin.

The Orioles had lost an 8-5 lead in the seventh inning when left-hander Buddy Groom allowed Williams a three-run homer on an 0-and-2 pitch. Hargrove noted a disturbing pattern of mistakes made on 0-and-2 and 1-and-2 pitches.

"The way I look at it, you don't want to give up an 0-and-2 hit," said Timlin. "But guys are attacking. You've got the hitter down, why let him back up? You don't always want to throw a ball; you don't always want to throw a strike. But you're attacking."

The blown save was the Orioles' sixth this season and one more than they blew during last season's second half. Uncertainty surrounding the closer situation doesn't suggest an immediate turnaround.

"Mike's got good stuff," said Hargrove. "We've got to get him over the hump and get his confidence back in himself. Mike is a good pitcher. Mike has better stuff than most people on this staff. Mike will be OK. We've just got to keep running him back out there."

The game was interrupted with one out in the fifth inning when seven flag-waving Puerto Rican protesters simultaneously took the field from several corners of the field brandishing Puerto Rican flags and signs critical of U.S. naval operations off the territory's coast. Several ran toward the infield, one directly at Yankees pitcher Jason Grimsley, before a security detail chased them down and tackled several. The protesters fell limp and were dragged from the field.

The protesters were too late to save Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez; the Orioles evicted him earlier in the inning with a pair of two-run homers into the right-field bleachers by B.J. Surhoff and Harold Baines. Cal Ripken had homered in the second inning as well.

Increasingly accustomed to playing from behind, the Orioles chipped away at Hernandez and returned a tie game to Erickson in the third inning. Ripken turned on Hernandez for his 13th RBI in 16 games.

The homer tied Ripken for 28th on the all-time list with Duke Snider's 407.

The game then became a matter of survival between two pitchers, one on an abbreviated pitch count and the other uncharacteristically dull.

Erickson fell behind again by allowing consecutive hits to Posada, Shane Spencer and Scott Brosius in the bottom of the fourth. Hargrove had Jose Mercedes up when Erickson escaped trailing 5-3.

Hernandez retired the first five hitters he faced then saw 11 of the next 18 reach. The Orioles attacked him so quickly in the fifth that manager Joe Torre was powerless to stop it until too late. Surhoff's shot bore into the right-field bleachers while Baines' drive landed in the upper deck to give the Orioles' their first lead, 7-5.

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