NEW YORK - A classic battle was put on display yesterday between the Orioles and New York Yankees, the kind of episode that could overshadow the passing of the season's midpoint. Within the framework of two teams trying to right themselves, one pitcher tried to salvage a season as another struggled to extend his distinguished career.
The Orioles and Scott Erickson (4-6) ultimately prevailed, 7-6, before 44,447 at overcast Yankee Stadium. The Yankees' three-run ninth-inning rally wasn't enough to undo the pounding of starter David Cone (1-7) in the first 5 2/3 innings as the Orioles won for the sixth time in eight games.
This time, the 36-45 Orioles' reconfigured mix-and-match bullpen held as Mike Trombley gained his second save by retiring Paul O'Neill with the tying run at second base after yielding a run on two hits.
This time, the Yankees were left to answer troubling questions about a pitcher who managed only one swinging strike with his underpowered fastball.
Uncertain is how many more "next times" are left for Cone, 37, who retains a remarkable 181-109 career record but bears little resemblance to the pitcher previously 4-0 against the Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
The Orioles led 1-0 when the game's second hitter, shortstop Mike Bordick, yanked a Cone fastball inside the left-field foul pole. They led 4-2 after their revived designated hitter, Harold Baines, led off the second inning with his ninth home run and slumping center fielder Brady Anderson followed three hitters later with a monstrous two-run shot into the right-center-field bleachers.
Erickson enjoyed more success at restoring his trade value. Pummeled for 22 earned runs in his previous three starts, Erickson rediscovered his powerful sinker after surviving a two-run first inning. The Yankees reached him for only three runs and six hits in 7 2/3 innings.
"From what I saw today, he kept the ball down," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "He threw a lot of ground balls against some very good hitters."
Previously guilty of trying to overthrow pitches, Erickson allowed his sinker to take its natural run yesterday while having enough command of a slider to throw it at unexpected times.
"He was able to throw to thirds of the plate today," said catcher Charles Johnson. "Before he was having some trouble hitting halves."
The Orioles have until midnight tonight to trade their $6.4 million innings-eater, who may have helped their position yesterday. Tomorrow, Erickson will have enough service time to veto any deal, according to Major League Baseball. His recent performance had dampened interest and raised concerns about his recovery from March elbow surgery.
It did not go unnoticed that the workhorse skipped Sunday morning's side session. Erickson, who once preferred working twice from a mound between starts, reacted indignantly when asked about Sunday's change of routine, saying only, "I don't know where you get your information."
As for the swirl of trade intrigue, Erickson said only, "I can't control any of that. I can't do anything to stop it, so I don't worry about it."
The Major League Baseball Players Association is prepared to argue otherwise as it maintains Erickson achieved veto privileges June 26. A union executive last week promised a grievance on Erickson's behalf should he wish to contest a deal. A commissioner's office spokesman said yesterday that an expedited hearing would be arranged to settle any such dispute.
The Yankees' problems are less baroque but perhaps more severe.
The two-time defending world champions last winter signed Cone to a one-year, $12 million extension and immediately classified him as a de facto fifth starter.
Cone has won once on four days' rest since last June and yesterday groped for command of a breaking pitch to compensate for a fastball gone flat. The Orioles jumped Cone for four home runs, three in the first two innings as they grabbed a 4-2 lead and a fourth on second baseman Mark Lewis' three-run shot for a 7-2 lead in the sixth.
"I was pretty much sitting on his slider," said Lewis, who started in place of the injured Delino DeShields. "I was going to swing at it no matter what."
Yankees manager Joe Torre intended for Lewis to be Cone's last hitter. The outcome proved decisive in a game the Orioles almost dropped late.
Cone's slope-shouldered body language suggests a frustrated pitcher. His pitching line confirmed it as yesterday marked the first time in 406 career appearances he had surrendered four home runs. He is winless in his last 11 starts, an especially telling statistic on the same day the Orioles bumped Jason Johnson to the bullpen for failing to win any of his 12 starts.
"He's having trouble locating his slider. It's been basically command with him. His stuff is no different but that spells the difference when you can't put it where you want," said Torre, whose team has fallen from first place after enduring its first losing month (10-15) since August 1996.
Catcher Chris Turner described Cone's slider as "rolling" and conceded his fastball's diminished velocity. Several Orioles estimated it at nothing more than 85 mph.
"I don't know what the answer is, but I'm certainly not about to give up on the fact that he can help this team," said Torre.
The Orioles will try again today to determine how much Erickson can bring in trade. If the answer is a package of prospects, including a significant pitcher, he may finish the week elsewhere.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Yankee Stadium, New York
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Pat Rapp (5-5, 5.18) vs. Yankees' Andy Pettitte (8-4, 4.40)