Rookie Willis Roberts has turned some heads with his impressive early-season performance, but the promising right-hander could not turn back the defending world champion New York Yankees yesterday at Camden Yards.
He retired the first seven batters he faced, but the Yankees took advantage of his shaky command in the third inning to score four times on the way to a 5-2 victory before 47,726 - only the second Oriole Park sellout of the season.
It was not a terrible effort. Roberts showed traces of the stuff that had carried him to four straight victories and a 1.95 ERA. He still has scouts from other major-league teams scratching their heads and wondering how they missed him when he was knocking around the minor leagues. He just ran into a very experienced offensive lineup at a time when he wasn't at the top of his game.
"He struggled with his command today," manager Mike Hargrove said. "His balls and strikes were about split. He's better than that and he knows it, but against a very tough lineup, he kept us in the ballgame and allowed us a chance to win."
The Orioles could manage only two runs against Yankees starter Andy Pettitte, who worked through seven innings and improved to 4-3 with a victory that put the Yankees on the threshold of a four-game sweep.
Now, it's up to former Orioles ace Mike Mussina, who will take the mound this afternoon for his first start in Baltimore since leaving the team as a free agent to sign an $88.5 million contract with the Orioles' chief American League East rival.
The Orioles will counter with right-hander Jason Johnson (2-2, 3.86) in a game that will take on even more importance for a rebuilding team that is fighting for respectability.
Roberts worked seven innings and gave up four earned runs on six hits and five walks on the way to his first major-league defeat, but he didn't seem particularly broken up about it afterward. He already seemed to be looking forward to a rematch with the Yankees next weekend in the Bronx.
"I don't think about that," Roberts said of the loss. "I work toward the next start. I'm not going to win every game. I'm going to start against the same team next time. I won't do anything different."
He can take some solace in the fact that the Yankees scored on him in only one of the seven innings he pitched, but they clearly exploited his lack of command in the four-run third.
Roberts allowed a one-out single to Alfonso Soriano and walked Scott Brosius before Yankees hitters slapped three straight run-scoring singles. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter stole home for the final run of the inning on one of those strange plays that seems to characterize this eventful rivalry.
Jeter broke for home when Orioles catcher Fernando Lunar tried to gun down Paul O'Neill breaking for second on a full-count pitch to Bernie Williams. Trouble was, the pitch was called a ball and the Orioles infield stood down - Jeter scoring easily ahead of a desperate return throw from shortstop Mike Bordick.
Lunar thought the pitch was a strike, and complained to home plate umpire Greg Gibson that he had waited too long to make the call.
Jeter broke so quickly that Lunar might have hung him up between third and home just by faking the throw to second, but he apparently thought he had a chance to end the inning by getting O'Neill.
"If he pumps, I'm dead," Jeter said.
"I was confused," Lunar explained. "I thought it was a strike. I thought he called it too late."
The post-game rehash was largely academic, since the third run of the four-run inning really decided the game. The Yankees added one more in the eighth on a run-scoring single by Brosius and reliever Brian Boehringer pitched two perfect innings of relief to secure the victory for Pettitte - who allowed only a pair of unearned runs and six hits.
"We just could never get anything going," Hargrove said. "When we hit the ball hard it was right at somebody and they made a great play on it. They made some errors and opened the door for us a little bit, but we never could quite step all the way through."
So it comes down to Mussina, who is coming off an impressive three-hit shutout against the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night, but has not pitched consistently through his first six starts in a Yankees uniform.
"Hopefully, we can go out and get some run support, because we haven't been scoring a lot of runs lately," Jeter said. "Hopefully he can go out there and pitch like he knows how to."
Hargrove tried to minimize the significance of the matchup against one of the most popular and successful pitchers in Orioles history.
"You do not care who you are playing or who's pitching for the other team," he said. "You want to win every ballgame and coming in, the Yankees are obviously a very tough ballclub. You know you do not do what they've done the last five or six years without being very good, but I'm sure that we will show up tomorrow and play just as hard as we did the last three days.
"We have played very good baseball the last three days. We really have. We've just come up short."
In the first three games of the series, the Yankees bullpen has thrown more than a complete game, allowing no runs and only two hits. A look: