With a matter-of-fact 5-3 win, the Orioles left behind the season's first month last night hovering around .500. They can thank a convergence of two factors seen last night by 28,510 at Camden Yards: Willis Roberts and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Thanks to a 5-3 record against the last-place Devil Rays, the Orioles exit April 12-14 compared to 14-10 last season. They had one winning streak and one losing streak of three games compared to 2000 when they sandwiched a four-game losing streak between winning runs of five and six games.
Last in the league in hitting with a still-unsettled rotation, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove devoted the month to experimenting with 24 lineups in 26 games, designating Cal Ripken as a part-time player and instituting an us-against-them mind-set within a clubhouse rife with inexperienced "kids."
No surprise has been bigger than Roberts, the career minor-leaguer signed last November after being rejected by the Cincinnati Reds. Bothered by blisters on the middle and index fingers of his right hand, he beat the Devil Rays for the second time in 11 days by toeing disaster but never falling in.
Roberts (4-0) won last night for the third time in as many starts by using the cushion given him by Brady Anderson's 44th leadoff home run, Melvin Mora's second-inning two-run homer and a sacrifice fly that left Delino DeShields with a team-high 12 RBIs.
The 4-0 lead against Devil Rays starting pitcher Paul Wilson (1-3) was helped by four early walks and Mora's mastery of the fourth-year franchise. Since coming to the Orioles from the New York Mets last July 28, all of Mora's three home runs have been against Tampa Bay.
Helped by three Innings of shutout relief from rookies Chad Paronto and Ryan Kohlmeier, Roberts responded with his third quality start in as many tries. Having waited eight years for his first major-league start, Roberts exits the month as one of six pitchers tied for the league lead in wins.
"I don't know about that," Roberts said. "I like to stay in the pack."
For much of the past three weeks the Orioles have shown how a struggling offense coupled with a fundamentally sound defense can beat a club with a struggling offense and an absolutely horrendous defense.
The Orioles exit April with a league-low .228 batting average, but they've also refused to bury themselves with sloppy defense and poor handling of situations. Their 13 errors entering their 26th game were more than only the Seattle Mariners. They have allowed six unearned runs, tied for fourth-fewest in the league behind Seattle, Minnesota and Kansas City.
Already on their second manager and second managing partner of the season, the Devil Rays entered last night with a major-league-high 31 errors, more than double their previous high of 13 for April. A year ago they didn't commit their 31st error until their 44th game on May 23.
Last night, the Devil Rays committed error No. 32 during the fourth inning and were spared miscues on consecutive calls only by a generous scorer.
The Orioles responded to the Devil Rays' two-run fourth by benefiting from the 31st unearned run allowed by the Devil Rays. Shortstop Felix Martinez primed a two-out rally by fielding Jerry Hairston's neat grounder then firing into the photographer's well behind first base. Hairston at least interrupted a 4-for-40 slide with his first multi-hit game since Opening Day.
More defensive hijinks followed when Brady Anderson chopped a grounder to third base that Vinny Castilla gloved then heaved low and late to first base. Fred McGriff failed to come up with the throw but Castilla was spared an error - and Anderson given an odd RBI - when Hairston was judged to have never broken stride. Devil Rays manager Hal McRae lifted Martinez in the fifth inning.
"He looked fatigued, physically or mentally," said McRae. "He was playing like he was tired, so I'm going to give him a day off tomorrow."
Roberts seemed intent on maintaining suspense in a game the Orioles otherwise controlled. Three times after receiving a 4-0 lead Roberts allowed the first two hitters in an inning to reach. In each instance, he contributed to the jam with a walk.
Roberts escaped the third inning unscathed by inducing a ground ball and back-to-back strikeouts, punctuating both with a pumped fist.
The fourth inning proved more difficult for the demonstrative Roberts after Ben Grieve doubled to break a 4-for-26 funk against the Orioles this season and Greg Vaughn walked. After falling behind McGriff, Roberts fed the Rays first baseman an outside fastball that he drove into the left-center-field gap. Left fielder DeShields made a diving attempt, gloving the shot briefly, then fumbling it before hitting the ground. Before DeShields could retrieve and throw, Grieve scored and Vaughn took third. From there, Vaughn scored on Jose Guillen's two-strike grounder against a relaxed infield to make it a 4-2 game.
The Orioles' unearned run became bigger when the Devil Rays again threatened in the sixth inning, again due to Grieve's leadoff hit walk to Vaughn.
Roberts hurt himself further by hitting Castilla with one out. The extra base the lead runner resulted in a run when Guillen's sacrifice fly made it 5-3.
"He's got a good arm. He's pitched well against us both times," McRae said. "Tonight we didn't take advantage of his wildness. The walks that put runners in scoring position... we didn't take advantage."