PHILADELPHIA - As several teammates hurriedly dressed and fled the season's disappointing first half, Mike Timlin pondered what might be a turnkey to a better summer. For the second time in three days, Timlin provided an uneventful save to a one-run game. Better yet, he could give reasons for extending his leave from the purgatory of middle relief.
The Orioles closed an "inconsistent" 38-48 first half with a 5-4 win yesterday over the Philadelphia Phillies made possible by Will Clark's two-run single with one out in the ninth inning and Timlin's perfect, two-strikeout performance in the bottom of the inning.
Not only did the win before 28,100 at Veterans Stadium give the Orioles the series - their second series victory on the road since April - it hinted at improvement from their harried closer.
Timlin's ninth save and second in three days came after he embraced pitching coach Sammy Ellis' advice in New York last week to rely more heavily on a rising, four-seam fastball than his more comfortable, two-seam sinker.
Timlin responded yesterday with a hopping, 97-mph fastball that overwhelmed fastball hitters Mike Lieberthal and Pat Burrell. Scott Rolen was the only hitter to make contact against him, fouling out to catcher Greg Myers to begin the inning.
Forced to share his role after a series of pratfalls on the previous road trip, Timlin has sufficiently rehabilitated his standing in the last week for manager Mike Hargrove to say, "Ideally, we'd like to have one closer. And, hopefully, we'll get back to one."
The game turned between friends. Clark and Phillies closer Jeff Brantley were teammates at Mississippi State before being reunited with the San Francisco Giants. They hadn't faced each other for 15 years, causing Clark to call it an "emotional" confrontation.
Against the Phillies' relaxed infield with runners at second and third, one out and Albert Belle on deck, Clark won the battle by driving an inside fastball into center field to score pinch runner Luis Matos and Brady Anderson.
His reward was a wish: What would he like most in the second half?
"That we win every game we lead." His reference had much to do with a bullpen that suffered 20 blown saves before the All-Star break for a second consecutive season as well as a rotation that has played loose with large leads.
Timlin has become a symbol for the troubles. Booed during the Orioles' previous homestand, he has become the target for fans frustrated by the bullpen's 20 blown saves.
Hargrove could feel their pain. He stripped Timlin of his status as singular closer after he blew a ninth-inning lead in Seattle on June 25. Timlin's recovery has required nothing less than accepting a different approach.
"What got me to the big leagues was my sinker," said Timlin, referring to the two-seam pitch. "Usually, you stay with what got you here."
But Hargrove and Ellis believed Timlin was trying to "place" pitches rather than throw forcefully. Timlin now sees the same.
"I'm just trying to think about right now," Timlin said. "I'm not trying to think too much about the future and forgetting about what you need to do now. I like the results. I got three guys out."
"The last two outings have been good steps in that process," said Hargrove. "I'm not going to sit here and say Mike Timlin is our closer. But if Mike continues to perform like he has the last two outings, it forces your hand a little bit. And that's not a bad decision to make."
Whether Timlin rights himself with the Orioles or another team is one of several questions that await. The remainder of his four-year, $16 million contract is being shopped, apparently with the Orioles willing to assume part of it in the right deal.
The Orioles spent much of yesterday displaying how they've reached this predicament. They stranded seven runners in scoring position through seven innings and watched starting pitcher Scott Erickson endure a two-run first inning before falling behind again, 3-2, in the third.
The Phillies scored eight runs in the first inning during the series, three fewer than the Orioles managed in the three games combined.
Erickson left after six innings, trailing 4-3. Mills (1-0) pitched two scoreless innings to secure his first win since returning to the Orioles in a June 13 trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Like Timlin, Erickson is available for the right deal. His ERA dropped to 7.22 and he exhibited improved command while relying more on his heavy sinker rather than attempting to overpower hitters. Erickson's four wins mirror his total at last season's break. He then produced a finishing kick that left him 15-12.
Half and half
A comparison of some Orioles team statistics at the All-Star break last year and this year:
W-L ............36-51 ...... 38-48
Pitching ERA .....5.23 ....... 5.73
Complete games .......8 .......... 6
Saves ................ 14 ........... 16
Home runs ...........111 .......... 121
Walks ................365 .......... 360
Strikeouts ............523 .......... 532
Hitting Average.... .284 ......... .275
Runs per game ...... 5.48 ..........5.19
Home runs ........... 122 .......... 116
Walks................. 354 ...........313
Strikeouts ............ 454 ..........464
Steals .................. 57 .......... 56