ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Sammy Ellis won't plead guilty to having a superstition; just don't ask him to walk under the stepladder that is the Orioles' pitching staff. Yet at the same time, the Orioles pitching coach will admit it beats being under the gun as a semblance of normalcy has returned to a staff that ranked last in the American League with a 6.06 ERA as recently as May 18 and a bullpen still best-known for its 13 blown saves in 19 opportunities.
Monday's 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays marked the first time in recent memory that manager Mike Hargrove could work his bullpen with confidence.
He used Mike Trombley, Buddy Groom and Mike Timlin in the roles projected for them this spring and was rewarded with threescoreless innings following Pat Rapp's quality six-inning start. As a result, the Orioles entered last night reveling in their best six-start string of the season. Coincidentally, they had won five of the six and been shut out in their only loss.
"You don't want to say too much about it because tonight's another game and you don't know what's going to happen," said Ellis, whose staff has reduced its ERA to 5.50 in the last 11 days, improving its league-wide standing to 12th while moving within 0.35 runs of the league median.
"For the last two weeks or so, things have looked a lot better. The starting pitching has been there and the guys in the bullpen are getting back to where they should be," said Ellis. "[Monday] night was the best we've seen in awhile. You want to stay there."
With Sidney Ponson allowing three earned runs in 8 1/3 innings last night, the rotation has compiled a 3.22 ERA in its last 14 games despite a disappointing 5-10 record in May. Ponson's win was only the fifth by an Orioles starter since Mike Mussina's 138-pitch complete game against the Texas Rangers April29.
Ellis is still waiting on Chuck McElroy and B.J. Ryan. McElroy has appeared only once since May14. Ryan broke a string of five appearances in which he had allowed runs with two shutout innings against the Oakland A'sFriday only to revert to his prior form last night, allowing a two-run single (runs charged to Ponson) and a two-run homer in the ninth. Prior to his recent skid, Ryan had allowed runs in only three of his first 24 appearances with the Orioles. Long reliever Jose Mercedes also has pitched only once since May 14 but his light load is indicative of the improved starting pitching.
Since reaching a season-high 7.05 on May 18, the bullpen ERA had fallen to 6.52 entering last night. In its last 12 innings, the bullpen had allowed five hits, two earned runs, won twice and put together a run of six straight hitless innings.
Said Ellis, looking around to avoid stepladders: "You appreciate it, especially when you've been where we've been. But you don't get too happy."
Baines dropped to 7th
Hargrove made his latest lineup adjustment last night, and once again it had implications for designated hitter Harold Baines.
After sitting out Monday's game against right-hander Steve Trachsel, Baines was dropped to No. 7 in the lineup for the first time this season. Baines had batted fifth in his previous 32 starts. First baseman Will Clark, leading the club with a.326 average but with only four RBIs and no home runs in86 at-bats, was promoted to No. 5 and went 0-for-4.
"I was looking for someone to give Albert [Belle] a little protection," said Hargrove. "Harold hasn't been swinging the bat like Harold can. I'm dropping him in the order a little to try and get him going. Clark has been swinging a little better."
Belle helped validate the move by homering for the first time since May 16 in his first at-bat. His two-run shot came one day after his fifth three-hit game of the season with Jeff Conine hitting fifth.
Baines, who went 1-for-4, entered last night hitting.240 with a .380 slugging percentage -lowest among Orioles regulars - and13 RBIs in 121 at-bats. He had managed one home run since May5, one multi-hit game since May8 and was in a 4-for-28 (.143) rut.
Erickson false alarm
Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden put Queen City media on a 48-hour notice Monday that he was prepared to announce a major trade. Speculation immediately sprouted that the Reds and Orioles were discussing a trade involving pitcher Scott Erickson.
While the Reds assigned a scout to the Tampa Bay series, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said last night that the two teams have not spoken recently. "Scott's not going anywhere," Thrift said of the Reds rumor.
Johnson returns to lineup
Four days after suffering a groin injury severe enough for doctors to project his return as two weeks, Charles Johnson made it back to the starting lineup last night.
Hargrove said beforehand he plans to use Johnson much the same way as before he took a foul tip during last Friday's win over the Oakland Athletics.
The assessment was subject to change based upon how Johnson emerged. While Johnson remains sore, he is able to crouch, swing a bat and run without major pain.
"Maybe if I change my stride it'll help my speed," joked Johnson, never confused with a stolen base threat.
He only had to jog in the eighth inning last night, connecting for his eighth home run.