ARLINGTON, Texas - After what happened last night before a national television audience and 36,378 at The Ballpark in Arlington, the Orioles must wonder if they are experiencing merely a downturn or something irreversible.
A seemingly secure game instead turned into a 6-5 loss and created additional doubt about a shell-shocked bullpen, a veteran lineup and the direction that the front office has suggested but never spelled out.
Cruising behind starter Scott Erickson with a 5-0 lead after five innings, the Orioles completed a incendiary 1-4 road trip by unravelling due to shoddy base running, out-of-control pitching and an offense that again did as little as possible with a lot. Only two games better than last year's team was at the same juncture, the 17-25 Orioles were beaten for the eighth time after leading by at least three runs while watching their bullpen blow a save for the 12th time in 18 chances.
The Orioles lost their fourth consecutive game by one run after giving away three outs on the bases and helping the Rangers create at least two runs, including the game-winner on walks. Losers of 15 of their last 17, the Orioles were officially beaten in the eighth inning on pinch hitter Frank Catalanatto's ground two-out single off Mike Trombley. Ruben Mateo, who led off the inning with a walk, scored. Catalanatto improved to 6-for-10 as a pinch hitter.
Unofficially, the Orioles made themselves vulnerable by a series of base-running blunders and Erickson's stumbles in the sixth and seventh innings. The Orioles have now gone 22 days with only one win from a starter.
For the first time in nearly a month, Hargrove watched his scuffling bunch take a quick lead, build on it, and coast with a competent pitching performance. Then the seventh inning happened.
A three-run first inning against Rangers starter Darren Oliver began with Mike Bordick's one-out home run and was followed by three consecutive singles from Delino DeShields, Albert Belle and Jeff Conine. Belle created an unearned run when he went from first to third on Conine's base hit and drew a wild throw from right fielder Jason McDonald that sailed into the Orioles' dugout.
Consecutive doubles by Will Clark and Cal Ripken pushed the lead to 4-0 in the fourth inning. A little history helped the Orioles to a 5-0 lead in the fifth.
Before last night's appearance, Clark's second since coming off the disabled list for a strained hamstring, all of histhree RBIs came April 9 against the Detroit Tigers. Fifty at-bats, almost six weeks and his frustrating injury had followed until Clark drove a two-out RBI single to chase Oliver. The hit was Clark's third with runners in scoring position this season and his first with two outs in such situations. Clark, the league leader in on-base percentage when injured May 2, reached in his first four plate appearances and jacked his average to .368 with hits in his first three at-bats.
The Orioles haven't won by more than a run since April 29. Their three subsequent wins have included twice on ninth-inning rallies and once on a 138-pitch complete game by Mike Mussina. Erickson's win last Tuesday snapped the rotation's 14-game winless streak.
Erickson managed a low pitch count despite a relatively even distribution of balls and strikes. Two double plays in the first four innings and a number of first-pitch outcomes helped. Erickson had control problems in the fourth and fifth innings but wasn't harmed by four walks over the span. He got Rangers designated hitter David Segui to hit into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the fourth. He then escaped the fifth unscathed after the Rangers loaded the bases without a hit.
A rarely seen interference call against Erickson extended the fifth inning when plate umpire Charlie Reliford ruled the pitcher had bothered Luis Alicea while hustling to first base on a right-side grounder.
Jeff Conine's two-hit game was marred by a fifth-inning base-running gaffe that allowed Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez to pick him off first base on a single.
For the second consecutive night, the Orioles lost an out when left fielder B.J. Surhoff was thrown out at the plate with none out.
The mistakes didn't immediately take a toll but enabled the Rangers to stay within striking distance - also known as five runs - of a delicate pitching staff.
Erickson experienced turbulence in the sixth inning when first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and third baseman Mike Lamb homered in a four-hitter span. Palmeiro's home run to right-center field was his second in as many nights and 14th of his career against his former team.
After a two-out single by rookie star Ruben Mateo, Lamb drove Erickson's 0-1 breaking pitch into the right-field bleachers for a 5-3 game.
Hargrove resisted activating his bullpen until the eighth inning. Given that the Orioles have lost six times when leading after seven innings, his reluctance was predictable. Erickson needed only 85 pitches to get through seven innings. However, he needed only 11 more to create his next crisis.
A walk to McDonald, the Rangers' No. 9 hitter, and Alicea's single created a first-and-third situation with none out. With Buddy Groom and Al Reyes warming, Hargrove allowed him to face Chad Curtis, who walked on five pitches to load the bases with none out.
Reyes was summoned to face Rodriguez, the incumbent AL MVP, for his second appearance since being optioned to Triple-A Rochester on April 21. Rodriguez rifled Reyes' first pitch to the center-field warning track for a sacrifice fly and a 5-4 game.
Hargrove then called upon Groom to match up against the left-handed-hitting Palmeiro, who grounded weakly enough to a relaxed infield that Alicea scored on the groundout. A game once under control now became a battle of bullpens.