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Since June, Belle's in power swoon


If June kissed Albert Belle, July is kicking him.

Belle officially entered the longest home run drought of his productive 12-year career on Tuesday night when he endured a 95th straight at-bat without a homer. It stretched to 99 at-bats last night.

Belle has been stuck on 18 home runs since reaching Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield June 29 at Fenway Park. That home run capped Belle's monster June in which he clubbed 12 home runs -- including grand slams on consecutive nights -- drove in 37 runs and hit .364 to be named American League Player of the Month.

Belle is batting .263 (25-for-95)with eight doubles and 12 RBIs this month. He is also playing hurt.

Belle endured 23 games and 92 at-bats without a home run with the Cleveland Indians from Aug. 28-Sept. 24, 1993.

Though kept in the ballpark, he has remained productive as the cleanup hitter. He is hitting .319 (69-for-216) over his past 53 games. He hit 13 home runs in the first 29 games of that span before enduring the past 24 games with none.

Mike Hargrove, who managed Belle for six years in Cleveland, yesterday offered no explanation for the lapse, saying only that he's satisfied with his production.

"Any time a player of Albert's stature goes 100 or so at-bats without a home run, I think it causes you a little bit of concern, but I'm not worried about it," said Hargrove, who says he hasn't considered moving Belle out of the cleanup role. "He's got 18 home runs and 76 RBIs. I think a lot of people would make that trade."

Belle apparently has been playing for at least three weeks on a sore left leg that has left him with a slight limp and contributed to a more frequent role as designated hitter. He stole 17 of 20 attempts last season but has been caught in all five attempts this year.

He has yet to seek treatment from Orioles trainers, according to a club source.

Belle either suffered or aggravated the injury during this month's series against the Yankees in New York. He has not managed a multi-RBI game since June 30. Among active players, only Jeff Conine has gone longer without a multi-RBI game (June 22).

Analyzing Erickson

The Orioles can see what's wrong with Scott Erickson. They see he's leaving pitches up in the strike zone, which is death to any sinkerballer. Finding a solution has been the challenge.

Erickson insists that he's healthy, that the arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow on March 3 isn't responsible for a 7.87 ERA. Hargrove continues to take Erickson at his word.

A pitcher known for devouring innings, Erickson has covered 21 1/3 in his past four starts while allowing 23 earned runs and 31 hits. He lasted four innings Tuesday night, long enough to give up eight runs and 11 hits in a 19-1 loss to the New York Yankees.

"It looked like his velocity was decent. It was between 90 and 93 [mph]. He threw some good breaking balls. He just didn't throw enough strikes," Hargrove said.

"He certainly hasn't found his stride. He hasn't found his rhythm. You keep waiting for him to do it. We'll keep running him back out there for him to do that. Scotty's too good and has done too much in his career not to find his rhythm and find that groove. Given a chance, he'll do that. You never have to question Scotty's mental and physical effort when he goes out on the mound. He's there to pitch and to stay on the mound. There's a lot to say about a guy like that."

Pitching coach Sammy Ellis noted that when Erickson keeps the ball down, "It's enough to be a big winner."

It's just not happening with any regularity.

"Nobody can keep it at the knees every time," Ellis said, "but the game of baseball, especially hitting and pitching, is all odds, all percentages. And if your long suit is a sinking fastball and a hard slider, then you better keep those pitches down. When a sinkerballer elevates his sinker and elevates his slider, he's going to get beat up."

Ellis backed off any further analysis. Asked if it's a mechanical problem, he said, "I'm not sure about that. I can't answer that and I don't want to answer that. "

Rapp well-rested

Pat Rapp will go on seven days' rest when he starts Saturday's game against the Cleveland Indians. He hasn't pitched since Friday in Toronto, when he allowed two earned runs in 6 1/3 innings to end the Orioles' 0-20 drought in Canada. Before yesterday, he hadn't even thrown off a mound.

Rapp was Plan B if Sidney Ponson hadn't been able to pitch last night because of neck stiffness. Knowing he wouldn't be needed, Rapp threw on the side yesterday.

"I haven't done anything. I've been resting," he said. "I've done some long tossing, but I didn't want to throw [Tuesday] and then find out Sidney wasn't starting."

Rapp should be used to this by now. He went eight days between starts in April and 11 days in July because of the All-Star break, though he threw two innings in relief.

"Hopefully I'm not too strong and my ball straightens out. I'd like to have my cut fastball the whole time," he said. "In the past I tend to be a little strong when I wait so long to throw, but if I can hit my target it shouldn't matter."

J. Johnson 3-0 on the farm

Jason Johnson turned in his best start for Triple-A Rochester on Tuesday, allowing one run and three hits, and striking out seven, in eight innings.

He's 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA, but more important to Hargrove, he threw strikes and stayed ahead of the hitters on Tuesday.

There's still no timetable for bringing Johnson back to the majors. He lost his spot on the 25-man roster because he lacked command and threw too many pitches. He won't get it back simply because he's winning at Rochester.

"I'm sure he knows he can go down there and dominate that level of competition," Hargrove said. "I'd be real worried if he went down there and struggled. He's doing what he should be doing as far as dominating, but what we need to see is Jason having consistency with pitches thrown in the strike zone. Until [Tuesday] night we weren't seeing that. It's got to happen more than once for me."

Amaral update

Rich Amaral did some more running in the outfield before last night's game under the supervision of Bancells. Amaral remains on the disabled list with a strained calf muscle. He hasn't played since June 14.

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