MONTREAL - Their style continues to suggest the Orioles are a more entertaining, more functional team this season. They no longer are destroyed by the fourth inning because of abysmal starting pitching and are capable of frequent displays of power.
But as last night's 7-4 loss to the Montreal Expos before 13,628 at Olympic Stadium proved, their substance has remained maddeningly similar to the two fourth-place seasons that ignited last October's managerial and front office purge. Whatever they do appears just good enough to lose. Their occasional surges are not enough to compensate for their frequent losing streaks.
This time, three home runs, an early two-run lead and the presence of an opposing Double-A pitcher were not enough for the Orioles to avert a four-game losing streak. They committed no errors or base-running gaffes. But the Expos used fresher legs and an airtight bullpen to decide the game.
Hostages to their power, the Orioles used three home runs to score all their runs before the fifth inning. Their latest losing streak corresponds to a run of 43 consecutive innings in which they haven't scored more than two runs.
At 23-30, these Orioles are three games better than last year's spring train wreck. They have shown themselves far more competitive but also prone to the same tendencies exhibited the previous two seasons. Once again they find themselves unable to prevent losing streaks while being undone on artificial surface and in international settings. They have now lost 19 straight games in Canada dating to June 1998.
Once again they powered their way to two leads then were shut down when the home runs stopped coming.
Orioles starting pitcher Pat Rapp (4-3) gave a more impressive display of hitting than game management by failing to hold two leads, one of which vanished before he could get the next out.
Rapp stayed around long enough to take two at-bats, both requiring running catches by outfielders. However, he didn't remain long enough to give the rotation its 15th quality start in the last 18 games.
The Orioles cite the presence of former 50-steal talents Delino DeShields and Brady Anderson as proof of their versatility but in recent weeks their once-aggressive running game has slowed to a crawl. Once second in the league in steals, they entered last night fourth with 36 in 57 attempts, a less-than-flattering 63.2 success rate. Only four of those stolen bases have come since May 17 - DeShields has stolen just one of his 16 bases since that date and Anderson has stolen one of his six bases since May 14.
The Orioles entered last night having been outscored 11-7 in three consecutive losses. The Expos had conversely attempted four steals in beating the Orioles, 5-3, on Friday night.
Beaten by a pair of Triple-A pitchers earlier in the week in St. Petersburg, the Orioles wasted little time against Double-A call-up T. J. Tucker, who was making his major-league debut.
Before the fourth inning was done, the Orioles had homered three times against Tucker, including back-to-back bases-empty shots by B. J. Surhoff and Charles Johnson in the fourth inning and Albert Belle's two-run homer to provide a brief 2-0 lead in the third. Belle's home run marked the first time this year he connected in consecutive games.
The Orioles' previous win, an8-7 beating of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays last Tuesday, had included four home runs and nine extra-base hits. They haven't had an offensive outburst since. Even the early power barrage did nothing to disrupt the trend.
While they are only 11-11 when producing 10 hits or more and 19-15 when scoring first, the Orioles have received more than one home run in 12 of their 23 wins. They are only 11-22 when unable to generate multiple home runs.
Coming off three consecutive quality starts and back-to-back games in which he had surrendered onlyone run in 13 innings, Rapp was unable to contain the Expos' power. The result was a mishandled two-run and one-run lead and his second-quickest exit of the season.
The Expos needed only three hitters to tie the game in the bottom of the third when Tucker smashed a hit past first base in his first major-league at-bat. Center fielder Peter Bergeron then tripled into the right-center-field gap, followed by second baseman Mike Blum's double to left. Had the rally stopped there, Rapp may have survived longer than the fifth inning. Instead, Vladimir Guerrero lined a two-out single past first baseman Will Clark that scored Blum for a 3-2 lead.
Surhoff and Johnson provided a rapid response unit in the fourth inning when they connected for the Orioles' fourth set of back-to-back home runs this season. Johnson has been involved each time.
The young, overachieving Expos aren't much for on-base percentage but are among the National League leaders in batting and slugging. Their aggressiveness punished Rapp during a two-run fifth inning that reversed the game.
Rapp never pitched a clean inning and the fifth was nearly as dirty as the second. A leadoff walk to Bergeron preceded Blum's second home run, making it a 5-4 game. With Rapp due to bat second the next inning, interim manager Jeff Newman successfully gambled that he could escape a one-out, first-and-second mess. A ground ball from Trace Coquillette produced an inning-ending double play.
Needing more runs, the Orioles found no more power and again suffered a lockdown against a string of Expos relievers.
Felipe Lira, former Oriole Anthony Telford, Guillermo Mota and Expos closer Steve Kline shut down the Orioles for five innings. Newman, meanwhile, tried to use his bullpen to match up. He received two outs from long reliever Jose Mercedes, who made his second appearance since May 14; two outs from Chuck McElroy, who pitched on consecutive days for the first time as an Oriole; and a hurtful home run allowed by Al Reyes, who couldn't prevent Guerrerro's 16th home run in the seventh inning.