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Jeter gives shot of reality

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - Like some pitching innocent, Josh Towers looked to the Bronx sky and pointed at the ball as it soared above and past him. Surely one of his mates would find the ball, run it down, catch it, then jog from the field to hit the ball themselves.

But the shrinking white ball never came down. It just kept going and going before disappearing behind a blue wall in right-center field about 400 feet away to give New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter a two-out, three-run home run.

The blast broke an eighth-inning tie and the fresh-faced Towers' anticipation. It also gave the three-time defending world champions an 8-5 win over the struggling Orioles, who left Yankee Stadium wondering what it will take to beat a team that flogs them with their own mistakes.

Reflecting on Jeter's fly ball turned heartbreaker, the rookie Towers said, "I guess that's why he is who he is."

These are the Orioles: close but too bizarre.

Able to score in each of the first two innings, they allowed the Yankees a 2-2 tie with a miserable second inning that included errors by left fielder Delino DeShields and third baseman Cal Ripken; a two-out walk and a hit batter by Orioles starter Jason Johnson; one hit by the Yankees; and an assurance that manager Mike Hargrove would have to dig too early into a fatigued bullpen.

Given a 5-4 fifth-inning lead, Johnson made it last only three pitches.

Given a chance to retake the lead in the seventh with a two-out rally, Ripken flied out with runners at second and third.

One pitch away from escaping the eighth, Towers (1-1) allowed a two-out single to third baseman Scott Brosius, another single to designated hitter Chuck Knoblauch, and a misplaced changeup that Jeter turned into his second home run of the season and the Yankees' sixth straight win over their fourth-place rivals.

"I thought it was a fly ball when he first hit it," Hargrove said. "It surprised me."

The Yankees received five runs on home runs by David Justice, Bernie Williams and Jeter. They again stiff-armed the Orioles in the middle and late innings with a bullpen that has allowed Baltimore only one run in 20 innings this season. In a tie game, the Orioles lost with a pitcher making his fifth major-league appearance. The Yankees won with Mike Stanton (3-1) in his 697th.

In four of the six games, the Orioles have either lost by two runs or fewer or been tied entering the eighth inning. Each time they have been hurt by home runs, lacking defense or been wiped out by the game's most dominant bullpen.

"I'm not satisfied by any of this. At least I know I'm not," said catcher Brook Fordyce, who went 3-for-4 to lift his average to .200. "We had the lead and gave it back to them. We allowed unearned runs. We pitched well enough to win the game and screwed it up. We keep battling."

The Yankees are 15-0 against teams with losing records and 7-15 against all others; the Orioles are 8-5 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and 7-17 against all others.

Hargrove offered a soliloquy on why the situation is what it is.

"I think you have to look at the people they bring to the plate, 1-9. They have a guy hitting ninth [Brosius] who's hitting about .320 or better. You've got a guy [second baseman Alfonso Soriano] hitting .304 batting eighth. Then you've got all their thunder, 2-7.

"They have good team speed. They are the world champions. They deserve that title. They have nothing I can see to make anybody think that they are ready to relinquish it any time soon. You can't make mistakes against teams like that and expect to come out on top all the time."

The Orioles haven't come out on top yet.

"We should have won the game," DeShields said. "But we made mistakes. They took advantage. That's why they won."

"When you make mistakes, they capitalize on them," said Fordyce, who could cite the last two games' five errors. "That has been the difference in the games. ... Hopefully, we'll get better by this."

Hargrove is not only this team's manager, but its protector. His task is not only to give a transitional team its best chance today but to prevent it from losing interest tomorrow. Rather than dwell on yesterday's crimes, he subtracted the two unearned runs and still came up with a Yankee win.

Likening the two lineups to "apples and oranges," Hargrove said, "it's an entirely different lineup. It's a veteran, seasoned lineup. It's got a lot of pop."

Hargrove stopped shy of saying his team should have won with its 11 hits, five for extra bases. "We lost by three, we gave them two."

Of course, Hargrove knew the equation was more complicated. Had he not been asked to overcome the messy second inning, Johnson would have pitched deeper than five innings into the game. Had Johnson carried a lead into the seventh inning, Hargrove could have then mixed and matched before summoning closer Ryan Kohlmeier in the ninth.

"He threw a lot of extra pitches in that inning that he shouldn't have had to throw," Hargrove said of Johnson. "It certainly affected him later in the ballgame."

But DeShields - playing his first series in the Yankee Stadium outfield - whiffed on Tino Martinez's slicing line drive to open the second. "I'm not making excuses. I just missed it," DeShields said.

Jorge Posada's groundout advanced Martinez to third base and previously slumping Justice's sacrifice fly made a 2-1 game. But the rally lived with Soriano's two-out single, a walk to Brosius and Johnson hitting Knoblauch on an 0-2 pitch.

The misadventures - and Johnson's pitch count - grew when Jeter's grounder to third short-hopped Ripken for a run-producing error. "I just tried to goalie up on it and make a play," Ripken said, "but it rode up my arm."

Johnson, stuck at two wins despite a 3.63 ERA, wasn't blameless. The Orioles gave him a 5-4 lead with a three-run fifth inning that chased rookie left-hander Ted Lilly. Doubles by Fordyce and Mike Bordick and RBI singles by Jeff Conine and Ripken turned a 4-2 deficit into a hard-earned lead that Johnson quickly yielded on Justice's leadoff home run.

Johnson later left the clubhouse before taking reporters' questions. Hargrove was again left to paint a loss with perspective.

"The Yankees didn't get good overnight," he said. "The Orioles aren't going to get good overnight. It's a gradual process.

"Sometimes, it can go along and you think this is never going to get any better, then 'bang, bang,' it's there. But it's a gradual process ... It's not going to be an overnight deal."

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