A season of incremental change advanced another step for the Orioles last night. Wrapped within a compelling 3-2 win over the Detroit Tigers before 27,722 at Camden Yards, a closer's role was thrown open and an outfield's composition altered. Cal Ripken replied to another unspoken challenge by preserving the game with an eighth-inning dive and received a standing ovation.
More obviously, starting pitcher Pat Hentgen tied up the Tigers before a tag-team bullpen covered the final six outs to give the Orioles their second three-game winning streak. He pitched with a lead throughout because of David Segui's two-run, two-out single in the first inning.
The Orioles constructed a reel of defensive gems culminating in a game-ending double play behind left-handed reliever B. J. Ryan with runners at first and third. Second baseman Jerry Hairston scooped Jose Macias' line drive just before it touched down, flipped to shortstop Mike Bordick, and jumped for joy when Bordick completed the turn to double Roger Cedeno off first.
The Orioles are 13-0 this season when leading after seven innings. Last night represented their second challenge in three games.
Buddy Groom and Mike Trombley pitched an eighth inning that required Ripken's diving stop to his right to glove a two-hop grounder and hold the runner representing the tying run at third base. Trombley then finished the inning by striking out Juan Encarnacion with the bases loaded.
Regarding Ripken's stop against Dean Palmer, Hentgen said, "I think that was obviously the play of the game."
"There were many moments in the game where that game could have been decided, but luckily they went our way," said Ripken, well aware of the club's desire to acquire his successor.
Last night's loudest statement came from manager Mike Hargrove. Three days after Ryan Kohlmeier surrendered a game-tying home run to New York Yankees right fielder Paul O'Neill, Hargrove bypassed him in favor of Ryan against a string of left-handed hitters. Kohlmeier, who has converted six of eight save chances this season but allowed five home runs, will be recognized before tonight's game as last season's top AL rookie closer, a role he now shares at best.
"Ryan has been a little streaky this year and that probably has as much to do with this as anything. It's not that I don't have confidence in him, but there are good situations and bad situations," Hargrove said. "He's a young guy trying to establish himself and get his feet on the ground. It's tough to go out in tough situations every time out and accomplish that. So I'm trying to take as much pressure off him as anything."
Asked if the role is now a shared one, Hargrove said, "For right now it probably is."
Kohlmeier converted 13 of 14 save chances last season and has been scored upon in only one of his last seven appearances. However, the Orioles have become impatient about his high walk ratio and left-handed hitters' .290 batting average against him. The Orioles have spread 10 saves among four relievers; Kohlmeier's last came on May 1.
"That doesn't mean Ryan is not still the closer. On the road trip we [looked for matchups]. Obviously, the one time we didn't do it was in New York when O'Neill hit the ball out of the ballpark with two outs. Ryan is still a big part ot the bullpen. His role may be diminished somewhat, but he's still going to pitch in save situations. I would hesitate not to call him the closer, but he'll have some help out there."
Winning for the first time since beating the Tigers on April 24, Hentgen (2-3) has earned more than he's received this season. Last night represented the seventh time in nine starts he has allowed three earned runs or fewer in at least six innings. It was also the seventh time the Orioles have scored three runs or fewer with him in a game. The decision advanced Hentgen's lifetime record to 13-4 against his hometown team, which spurned him in last winter's free-agent market.
"I think when you have good command you can get quick outs and be efficient with your pitches," said Hentgen, who threw 100 pitches in his seven-inning outing. "I think that happened today and we made some good plays defensively. A lot of things happened our way tonight."
The Orioles reached Tigers starter Jeff Weaver (3-5) for a 3-0 lead then survived bases-empty home runs against Hentgen by Bobby Higginson and Encarnacion. Weaver pitched a three-hit complete game but couldn't overcome his early control lapse.
Brady Anderson and Delino DeShields had each started 35 of the Orioles' first 38 games. However, Segui's return from the disabled list Tuesday means their joint appearances in the outfield will become increasingly rare.
Before the game, Hargrove diplomatically described a rotating arrangement while also confirming it will be Chris Richard among the team's left-handed hitters who will most likely receive time against left-handed pitching. DeShields last night took over the leadoff role as Anderson sat.
"At some point," foretold a club official earlier this week, "performance becomes an issue."
"It's all about stepping up," said DeShields, who was 1-for-2 with two walks and two runs. "If we were playing better, this wouldn't be a concern. We have to play better. That's the bottom line."
Segui's return dovetails with the Orioles' most impressive offensive surge this season. After driving in three runs in his return on Tuesday, Segui batted fifth behind Greg Myers last night. He again performed his role of enforcer perfectly in the first inning.
A leadoff walk to DeShields, a pitch that hit Mike Bordick and catcher Randy Inge's passed ball placed runners at second and third without the Orioles putting a ball in play.
Strikeouts of Richard and designated hitter Myers brought the rally to Segui. Just as he saved Tuesday's first-inning rally with a two-out, two-run single, he lined a single over second base to score both runners.
Segui's was the only hit Weaver surrendered until Bordick followed DeShields' two-out double in the fifth by looping a single into right field for a 3-0 lead.
The game shook DeShields from a recent 7-for-46 funk covering 13 games. It also marked just the second time DeShields had batted leadoff this season - a role that enhances his value to a potential National League trade partner.
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Tigers' Steve Sparks (1-2, 3.77) vs. Orioles' Willis Roberts (4-2, 4.54)