ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Losing streaks can be built many different ways. There's more than one blueprint. The Orioles took theirs apart last night with a rookie pitcher's steady hands and a veteran third baseman's ability to again reach into his past.
Josh Towers became the latest Orioles pitcher to gain his first major-league win this season, a feat made possible when Cal Ripken broke a seventh-inning tie with a two-run single in an 8-6 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field. Towers had relieved Sidney Ponson, who lasted four innings in his first start since coming off the disabled list.
The Orioles scored six runs in the seventh inning, their most this season, while sending 10 batters to the plate for the first time. Delino DeShields tied the game with a two-run single off Ryan Rupe (2-4), and Melvin Mora drove in two more with a double off Doug Creek for an 8-4 lead.
Buddy Groom served up a two-run homer to Fred McGriff in the eighth, but it didn't prevent Towers from joining Ryan Kohlmeier, Willis Roberts, John Bale and Chad Paronto on the list of Oriole rookies getting a win above Triple-A in 2001. Mike Trombley got the last five outs for his second save.
"I wasn't nervous. I felt comfortable," Towers (1-0) said. "I feel like I'll have a lot of wins so there's not a real big smile. It's better that we snapped the losing streak."
Ponson remains without a victory since Sept. 22. The Orioles' period of futility didn't stretch as far, but they had lost six in a row and were down, 4-2, before erupting in the seventh. Rupe was charged with all six runs in two-thirds of an inning. Towers, making his third appearance since being called up April 28, gave up two runs in three innings and didn't issue a walk.
Perhaps none of this happens without a little luck. Or a lot of it.
Tampa Bay starter Albie Lopez retired all 10 batters he faced before leaving with a strained groin muscle. He already had shut them out on three hits in an April 13 game, and brought the same stuff last night.
Mike Bordick fouled off the second pitch thrown to him in the fourth inning, and trainer Jamie Reed went to the mound as Lopez began flexing his right leg. With Reed standing nearby, Lopez threw one pitch before deciding he couldn't continue because of a strained groin muscle. Mike Judd came in from the bullpen and retired Bordick on a foul pop.
Chris Richard (three hits) lined a single up the middle leading off the fifth, ensuring that Ponson wouldn't be on the opposite end of another no-hitter. He already had been there with Boston's Hideo Nomo.
Melvin Mora and Brook Fordyce walked to load the bases with two outs, and Jerry Hairston tied the game with a two-run single to center. The Devil Rays reclaimed the lead in the bottom half on run-scoring singles by Russ Johnson and Ben Grieve off Towers, but the Orioles took apart Rupp and Creek in the seventh.
Manager Mike Hargrove's latest lineup actually was a duplicate of the one used May 1 against the Devil Rays, noteworthy only because he hasn't written out the same one more than twice all season. He has used 31 different lineups in 34 games.
"That's a new record for me," Hargrove said.
It's been quite a change for a manager often criticized by the Cleveland media for being too predictable and not utilizing his bench while guiding the Indians.
Some consistency has been found in an unexpected place: third base.
Ripken has started four consecutive games, and seven of the past eight. He had five hits within a span of seven at-bats before being retired in his last three trips during Tuesday's loss. Mike Kinkade has become less visible while recovering from a sprained ankle and wrestling with a slump that lowered his average to .245. He was hitting .385 on April 24, shortly after Ripken learned that his starts would decrease while Hargrove evaluated the younger players.
Ripken was retired twice last night before lining a double into left field in the sixth inning. His two-out single in the seventh gave the Orioles a 6-4 lead and raised his average to .215. He bounced into a double play in the ninth.
"I'm happy with my comfort level and getting some hits, and I'm happy with my contributions," Ripken said. "I'm continuing to work in the cage and continuing to make strides, and it's good to actually have success on the field. It gets you relaxed a little more and allows you to stay within your ability and play. I'd like to keep it simple without analyzing and figuring it out. I'll just keep pushing ahead and see what happens."
Asked if Ripken is responding to another challenge, as he has often done, Hargrove said, "You guys [reporters] can build this into whatever you want. There was not a challenge issued. The fact is, we need to find out about our young players, but there's not a challenge out there. Cal's playing well. I'm glad. It's good to see good players play well, no matter what point in their career they're in."
Ponson's previous start was April 15 at Camden Yards, when the Devil Rays pounded him early and took a 7-4 victory. When the soreness in his elbow exceeded the norm for the following day, Ponson requested a medical exam as a precaution. An magnetic resonance imaging didn't show any structural damage, and he was placed on the disabled list with tendinitis.
The Devil Rays got a leadoff double by John Flaherty in the third inning and added a two-out walk by Gerald Williams without scoring. McGriff walked with one out in the fourth, and Vaughn drilled a 1-2 pitch into the back row of seats in left field, just inside the foul pole. It was Vaughn's sixth homer this season, with five coming against the Orioles.
Ponson was gone after getting the last two outs, running his pitch count to 72. He walked two and struck out four.
Damian Rolls greeted Towers with a single to center. He stole second and scored on a two-out hit by Johnson, who took second on Mora's throw to the plate. That allowed him to score on Grieve's single to right on the next pitch.
Rolls led off the seventh with a double to right but was thrown out trying to go to third, with Hairston making a perfect relay to Ripken despite his momentum carrying him away from the infield. Jose Guillen reached on a throwing error by Ripken with two outs in the eighth, but was tagged out by Richard after rounding first.
Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Site: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla.
TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Pat Hentgen (1-3, 3.47) vs. Devil Rays' Paul Wilson (1-4, 7.22)