MONTREAL — MONTREAL - Jason Johnson last night traded places with Scott Erickson, who the night before had done the same with Mike Mussina. The cycle continues for the Orioles' starting rotation. While its offense grinds, satisfaction for the starting rotation must come from the nebulous "quality start."mmand, Johnson entered the dugout to slam the bench, and that was before watching struggling rookie reliever B. J. Ryan allow a two-strike, two-run single that broke open a 5-3 loss to the Montreal Expos before 12,645 at Olympic Stadium.
The Orioles, never considered a migratory bird and lately frustrated by an offensive molt, suffered their staggering 18th straight loss in a Canadian venue. Johnson was merely good, falling just short of his fifth quality appearance in seven starts. The Orioles' offense was again sporadic at best. Expos starter Carl Pavano (6-2), meanwhile, provided additional return on the November 1997 trade that brought him from the Boston Red Sox in return for Pedro Martinez. He was given a 3-0 lead by first baseman Lee Stevens' two home runs and a second-inning single by catcher Brian Schneider, who finished with three RBIs.
Even with Johnson watching his two leftover runs score, the rotation has posted quality starts in 14 of its last 17 starts, winning only five while crafting a 3.35 ERA. Johnson's inability to finish the sixth inning halted a run of nine consecutive quality starts.
"It's very frustrating," said Johnson, who is 0-4 despite an ERA of 4.75, lower than Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson. "It's probably the most frustrating thing I've ever had to go through."
Johnson, 26, allowed six hits and two walks, both in the sixth, while striking out six. After making necessary adjustments to speed his pace and streamline his mechanics, he remains winless in seven starts.
"The outcome wasn't muibueno, but I thought he threw the ball well," Hargrove said. Johnson still works on a de facto pitch limit and last night was pulled after 97 pitches, trailing 3-2. But he also has pitched ably enough to deserve better
There is no confusing these Orioles with a National League animal, especially on a quick surface. The Expos stole three bases, including two in the telling sixth inning. Conversely, accepted American League style is to save outs for big swings. Johnson did drop the Orioles' eighth sacrifice bunt this season to advance two runners into scoring position in the fifth inning. The move led to a run; however, the Orioles have now gone 34 innings without a three-run inning. "We haven't strung together two or three hits and we haven't gotten the big hit to put us over the top," Hargrove said. "We got nine hits tonight, scored three and probably should have scored four or five."
Since breaking out for nine extra-base hits on Tuesday, the Orioles have scratched for offense. They have two home runs in that span and have managed just one two-run inning.
Brady Anderson's 20-foot squibbed grounder led to a fifth-inning run when Pavano ill-advisedly tried to make a spectacular throw on a ball that would have advanced neither B.$J. Surhoff nor Charles Johnson from third and second base. The wild throw allowed Surhoff to score an unearned run.
Albert Belle brought the Orioles within a run in the sixth inning when he crushed a pitch for his sixth home run. But for a second straight night, Belle's aggressiveness on the bases proved costly. With runners at first and third and one out in the fourth inning, Belle attempted to steal. He was caught, nullifying a possible sacrifice fly. The inning ended when Will Clark popped out.
"That was on his own," said Hargrove, who grants free-lance privileges to only a few. "I was probably surprised as you are. I talked about it with Mr. Belle."
Asked about the magnitude of outs made on the bases, Clark said, "When things are going good and someone hits a three-run homer, it doesn't get noticed."
Johnson helped force Hargrove's hand in the sixth by the walks. walking two hitters. The manager then opted to work a double switch that replaced Surhoff with Jeff Conine and allowed Conine to move into the No. 9 hole. As it was, Ryan got his only out after Schneider's single on a caught stealing and was replaced by Al Reyes to start the seventh.
For much of the season, no move has been the right move with this bullpen. Even with several members emerging from a funk, Ryan lags.
National League-style ball only accentuates a bullpen weakness. The need for a pinch hitter forced Hargrove to make a move foreign to the American League.
Pavano's eight-inning effort performance made the move largely irrelevant. The Orioles created a two-out rally with Anderson's double and Mike Bordick's infield single in the seventh but Delino DeShields lined out to to end the threat. The Orioles stranded four runners in scoring position against him.
However, a decision by Expos manager Felipe Alou to lift Pavano after eight innings made for a two-run game when Mike Bordick capped a three-hit game with a two-out single to score Charles Johnson.
Opponent: Montreal Expos
Site: Olympic Stadium, Montreal
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Pat Rapp (4-2, 4.30) vs. Expos' T. J. Tucker (major-league debut)