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Tampa bookends squeeze Mercedes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Orioles pitcher Jose Mercedes continues to be vulnerable to the big inning, often getting it out of the way early. Why build the suspense? He's got enough drama unfolding with his inability to secure a win.

The wait continued last night when Mercedes lost control of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for a brief moment, just long enough for Fred McGriff to hit an opposite-field homer with two outs in the eighth for a 4-3 victory over the Orioles before 11,078 at Tropicana Field.

McGriff reached for a 2-1 fastball that hung over the plate and easily cleared the fence in left field, with Mercedes becoming the 300th pitcher he's taken deep. McGriff joined Mark McGwire, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Eddie Murray and Reggie Jackson as the only players to achieve that feat.

Mercedes had struck out the first two batters, raising his total to seven, as Chad Paronto and Buddy Groom warmed in the bullpen.

The Orioles (13-20) have lost six in a row and fallen seven games below .500 for the first time this season. Mercedes had a chance to bring them back to .500 last Wednesday, but the Devil Rays reached him for four runs and 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings. The Orioles continue to search for their next win. So does Mercedes, the staff leader in that department last season who's 0-6.

"I can't believe how stuff happens," he said. "It's like something was made to be that way."

Two more decisions like last night's and Mercedes will tie the club record, shared by Mike Boddicker and Jason Johnson, for most consecutive losses to start a season. He stiff-armed the Devil Rays after a three-run first, allowing five base runners over his last seven innings, only to take another shot at the end that left him dazed.

"It's unbelievable. Six losses. One bad inning every single game. What else can I do? I keep fighting and the big inning keeps following me," he said.

"I'm not going to let that stuff get me down. Tomorrow is a new day and I will wait for my next start and go from there. I know I'm way better than that."

Mercedes again proved to be a slow starter when Tampa Bay confined all its scoring to the first inning until McGriff's homer. Cleveland had scored three runs off him in the first inning of an April 17 start. Minnesota scored five first-inning runs later in the month.

The first four Devil Rays reached against him last night, beginning with a double by Gerald Williams on a two-strike pitch. A single and walk loaded the bases, and catcher Brook Fordyce made a trip to the mound after Mercedes fell behind, 2-0, to Greg Vaughn. It was pitching coach Mark Wiley's turn after Vaughn drove in two runs with a single into center field.

After two outs, Jose Guillen dumped a run-scoring single into right to give the Devil Rays a 3-0 lead. Mercedes threw 33 pitches in the inning. (He scattered 80 over his next seven.)

Mercedes adjusted his cap as he walked to the dugout, placing his hand on top of his head. The Devil Rays hadn't completely undressed him.

They hadn't figured him out, either. Following Guillen's single, Mercedes retired 13 of the next 15 batters before McGriff ripped a double down the right-field line leading off the sixth. He was the first Devil Ray to get into scoring position since the first inning. Mercedes got the next three outs without McGriff advancing.

Manager Mike Hargrove said Mercedes again failed to establish his fastball until after the first and observed how he looked "a little like a deer caught in the headlights," not knowing where to go or what to do. Fordyce said Mercedes threw fastballs, but his arm angle was poor. Mercedes said he didn't make any changes.

"I'm making pitches and they're still hitting them," Mercedes said. "They don't hit them good, but they hit them enough to do the damage."

"I'll take that outing every time," Fordyce said. "I'm sure we'll improve and he'll get better and get back to maybe giving up one run. I like where he's at right now."

Said Hargrove: "It's just a matter of time before he puts it all together. I think Jose's getting closer and closer."

If Mercedes was going to struggle last night, even for a brief period, it wouldn't be from a lack of familiarity with the opponent. He knew the other team about as well as his own.

This was Mercedes' third start against the Devil Rays this season. When the Orioles leave for New York tomorrow night, they will have played 13 of their first 35 games against Tampa Bay.

The Devil Rays have become family to them, like a strange uncle who keeps showing up on their doorstep or talking them into making another trip that everyone dreads. This is the second of three stops for the Orioles this summer at Tropicana Field. The Devil Rays already have been to Camden Yards twice, and the season is only six weeks old.

Having been swept at home in four games by the Yankees, the Orioles returned to the field that needs vacuuming. They ventured inside the warehouse, with its fake grass, tilted roof and sparse crowds. Storage sheds have more ambience.

This is where Tanyon Sturtze would make his first start since last August, replacing Ryan Rupe in the rotation. He already had gotten into six games against the Orioles, who hadn't done much against him. Sturtze had allowed only one run in 9 2/3 innings.

Last night, his lead began to shrink in the second inning, got a little smaller in the fourth and disappeared in the fifth.

Chris Richard walked with one out in the second and Cal Ripken doubled to left, with the fundamentally challenged Devil Rays failing to cover second base. Jay Gibbons shattered his bat on a bouncer to the left side that scored Richard.

Fordyce poked a run-scoring single into right field with two outs in the fourth, following a double by Richard and walk to Gibbons. And a leadoff double by Brady Anderson the next inning began a game-tying rally that included a wild pitch and a bouncer to second by Mike Bordick that Sturtze nicked with his glove. If he fielded the ball cleanly, or at least kept it in front of him, Anderson would have held at third.

Left-hander Doug Creek replaced Sturtze to open the sixth inning and issued a leadoff walk to Richard. Rusty Meacham replaced him with two outs and Richard on second, and struck out Fordyce. Meacham (1-1) got his first win since July 18, 1996, while pitching for Seattle.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.

Time: 7:15

TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (0-3, 6.62) vs. Devil Rays' Albie Lopez (3-3, 3.60)

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