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Orioles, A's play roles to perfection

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Pulled in opposite directions by the gravity of their respective situations, the Orioles and Oakland Athletics provided an exercise in the inevitable last night at Camden Yards.

The Orioles failed to entertain a record-low announced Camden Yards crowd but succeeded in infuriating manager Mike Hargrove by losing a brief lead, losing their intensity and ultimately losing in embarrassing fashion to the A's, 12-3, before a fraction of the 30,341 who paid.

Orioles starting pitcher Pat Rapp (8-12) surrendered 11 hits and seven earned runs in six innings but was sabotaged by indifferent defense, a smallish strike zone and his own inattentiveness during a critical fourth inning.

The loss became the 29th game in which the Orioles have surrendered at least 10 runs. Most disturbing to Hargrove, this loss seemed to come easily.

Hargrove called his team's recent performance "absolutely embarrassing." Just as irritating as Oakland's 17 hits was an obvious lack of pursuit.

The A's played as if aware of their standing.

Unfortunately, so did the Orioles.

"We're not playing the way we're capable of playing," Hargrove said. "When teams come in, we have to be competitive and respectable and we haven't done that at all. We're better than that.

"We came off the road playing very well. For whatever reason, Seattle came to town and we became flat. The last few days I've felt our focus has slipped."

The Orioles fell to 18 games below .500 (66-84) for the first time this season and matched their loss total from last season with 12 games remaining. They have lost nine of 12 overall and five in a row at home. Their only magic number - games remaining - tumbled to 12.

The A's, pressing the Cleveland Indians for the American League wild-card lead while stalking the Seattle Mariners for the AL West division lead, won for the 11th time in 14 games.

An offensive meltdown that has gripped the Orioles continued. They have homered six times in the past 14 games. They have scored more than three runs only three times in that span.

Hargrove wasted little time gathering his team for a pointed meeting that addressed the professionalism of his clubhouse, his coaching staff and himself.

Hargrove refused to publicly blast his team's effort but could not contain his frustration over its recent dull play. The meeting lasted more than 10 minutes as the manager held little back.

"We're better than that," Hargrove said. "All of us."

Catcher Brook Fordyce agreed with Hargrove's sentiment.

"A lot of things have got to happen," Fordyce said.

"We have to be better offensively and defensively. You've got to play these last 12 games hard. ... You can't just show up. You have to go out and play. ... We're going to lose games, but we can't lose games like tonight."

Rather than savor his team's breakout, which included three home runs among seven extra-base hits and a pair of four-run rallies, A's manager Art Howe noted nine runners left on base and observed, "We actually had the opportunity to score more."

The A's led Rapp 6-2 before they unloaded three home runs against three pitchers in the final four innings.

Right fielder Jason Giambi reached Rapp in the sixth inning, Shortstop Miguel Tejada homered off B.J. Ryan in the seventh and third baseman Eric Chavez capped a four-run rally off Buddy Groom in the eighth.

Once behind, the Orioles folded neatly, pushing only one runner to third base against A's starter Kevin Appier (14-11) and three relievers.

"It seems like we're in a game for a while but as soon as we give up a few runs, it's over," Rapp said. "That can't happen. It's a tough situation for everybody because we haven't been scoring many runs, but we have to keep playing.

"We've got guys here who should be thrilled to be wearing the uniform. Sometimes it doesn't look like it."

The fourth-place Orioles enjoy a chance to play spoiler over the season's final three weeks but have so far been pancaked. The Mariners flattened them, 26-4, during a three-game weekend sweep. Last night bumped the four-game skid to 38-7.

And in today's scheduled split doubleheader, the Orioles send rookie Jay Spurgeon for his fourth major-league start followed by reliever Chuck McElroy. It will be McElroy's first major-league start after 603 relief appearances.

The Orioles grabbed their first lead since Friday in the first inning when left fielder Delino DeShields turned on Appier for his ninth home run after Jerry Hairston ended a hitless week with a single.

The 2-1 lead fizzled in the fourth inning as Rapp battled his own control and his own mental lapse. Ben Grieve's leadoff double was quickly followed by Tejada's RBI single. Brady Anderson's tardy throw to the plate allowed Tejada to take the go-ahead run to second base.

Rapp aggravated the mess by breaking late to the bag on Chavez's roller to first base. A walk loaded the bases before No. 9 hitter Ramon Hernandez lined a bases-clearing triple past Anderson and through the right-center-field gap for a 6-2 lead.

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