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 their 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. 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 last 21 games to negate a corresponding turnaround by the starting rotation.
"It's just one of those things that didn't come through. On another given day, it might," said bench coach Jeff Newman, who's managing the team while Mike Hargrove is away at his son's high school graduation. 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. Orioles starter 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 out-fielders. However, he didn't remain long enough to give the rotation its 15th quality start in the last 18 games.
"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," said Rapp.
"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."
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. Only four of those stolen bases have come since May 17 -- one by DeShields and one by Anderson.
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. "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 Newman.
"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."
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.
The Orioles' previous win, an 8-7 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 only one 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 third, when Tucker smashed a hit past: first base in his first major-league at-bat. Center fielder Peter Bergeton 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.
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, 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 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.