O's are out of league in 7-4 loss

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MONTREAL -- Their style , continues to suggest the Orioles are a more entertaining, more functional team this season. They no longer are destroyed before the fourth inning because of abysmal starting pitching and are capable of uneven 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 frequent losing streaks.

This time, three home runs and an early two-run lead against 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 put fresher legs and an airtight bullpen to better use.

The Orioles are not constructed for this setting. Because of the designated hitter, American League teams are less reliant on bench strength than their National League counterparts. Last night it showed as the Expos received three RBIs from reserve second baseman Geoff Blum.

"Coming out of spring training there's no doubt our team's built differently from a National League club. Is it difficult? You play the hand you have, but we don't come out of spring training gearing our team to having a lot of switches, a lot of pinch hits," said bench coach Jeff Newman, who served in place of Mike Hargrove while the manager attended his son's graduation in suburban Cleveland. "Our team is pretty much a set nine. One or two times a series you're going to pinch hit for someone. They're all good, experienced players.

"Is it difficult? Yes. It's a different type of ballgame than we're used to. It's still baseball.

"They play it; we play it."

Orioles starting pitcher Pat Rapp (4-3) offered a more impressive display of hitting than game management by failing to hold two leads, both 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 out-fielders. However, he didn't remain long enough to give the rotation its 15th quality start in the past 18 games.

Hostages to their power, the Orioles used the 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. More telling, they have averaged 3.67 runs in their past 21 games to negate a corresponding turnaround by the starting rotation.

"It seems like we can never put them together in one game. We got the hitters to blow teams Out. We're just not doing it," Rapp said.

"It's just one of those things that didn't come through. On another given day, it might," Newman said.

Added left fielder B. J. Surhoff, who contributed the second of the Orioles' three home runs: "You could make a case that it affects us more than it affects them. We're used to playing with [the DH]. We have to make an adjustment. That's not why we lost."

Entrenched in fourth place 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.

"We had three jacks, four runs. We had guys on base and couldn't get them across. Every time we had a lead, I couldn't hold it," Rapp said.

The Orioles cite the presence of former 50-steal talents Delino De-Shields 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 just one of his 16 steals since that date and Anderson has stolen one of his six bases since May 14.

The Orioles entered last night outscored 11-7 in three consecutive losses. The Expos had conversely attempted four steals in beating the Orioles, 5-3, on Friday.

"It seems like you never know," Rapp said. "It seems like we haven't put it together. Some games we hit and hit and hit. Other games, they're few and far between or we get guys on base and can't get them over or push them in scoring situations. We don't know these pitchers. The pitchers don't know the hitters as well, either. But that's no excuse."

"You need big hits at big times; we haven't gotten those lately," Surhoff said. "It's pretty simple."

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 made his major-league debut.

The Orioles homered three times against Tucker, including back-to-back bases-empty shots by Surhoff and Charles Johnson in the fourth inning after Albert Belle's two-run homer provided a brief 2-0 lead in the third. Belle's home run marked the first time this year he has connected in consecutive games.

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 only one run in 13 innings, Rapp was unable to contain the Expos' power. The result was a pair of mishandled leads and his second-quickest exit of the season.

"I just didn't have good enough control like I had the last couple starts and had to throw pitches they could hit in hitter's counts," said Rapp, who allowed 12 base runners in five innings.

Rapp never pitched a clean inning and the fifth was nearly as dirty as the second. A leadoff walk to center fielder Peter Bergeron preceded Blum's second home run, giving the Expos a 5-4 lead. Now 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 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 Vladimir Guerrerro's 16th home run in the seventh inning.

Orioles today

Opponent: Montreal Expos

Site: Olympic Stadium, Montreal

Time: 1:35 p.m.

TV/Radio: HTS WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (3-2, 5.09) vs. Expos' Tony Armas (0-2, 3.33)

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