Whatever the Orioles' problems this season, winning behind Willis Roberts and winning when given more than a thimble-full of runs haven't been among them.
At least not until now.
Circumstances that typically have translated into an Orioles win last night became a 7-5 loss to the Detroit Tigers before a chilled announced crowd of 27,508 at Camden Yards. Not only did the Orioles lose a chance for their first series sweep and four-game win streak of the season, but they also lost a little of the amazement surrounding their off-season find and mystery starting pitcher.
Previously 9-3 when banging at least 10 hits and 14-7 when scoring at least four runs, the Orioles saw both trends fail them. A five-run third inning meant nothing.
Of more concern was the diminished velocity on Roberts' overpowering four-seam fastball. A pitch that usually runs by hitters at 95 miles per hour struggled to top out at 92 and 93, leaving the rest of his assortment more vulnerable.
"He still has good stuff. He just didn't have that explosive fastball, so they didn't have to cheat as much," said catcher Brook Fordyce. "That makes it easier to hit the splitter."
The difference was noticeable enough that Roberts' catcher, manager and pitching coach all inquired whether he was injured. "He told us he was fine," said pitching coach Mark Wiley.
Roberts chose not to speak for himself. The veteran of six major-league starts was showered, dressed and gone when the clubhouse doors opened afterward.
"His velocity was down as opposed to what it had been all year long," said manager Mike Hargrove. "He looked like he was trying to keep himself under control and command his pitches. For the most part, he did well. He had some pitches up and some balls up over the middle of the plate, but he is healthy and everything is fine. So we will address this and go on."
Hargrove theorized that Roberts' less aggressive approach may have resulted from a misinterpretation of a conversation that followed his disastrous 14-5 loss to New York on May 11. Hargrove and Wiley advised Roberts to exhibit more control over himself. Last night, Roberts was not only less demonstrative on the mound but his pitches were also less powerful.
"He's an aggressive pitcher, and that's what he needs to portray on the mound," Hargrove said.
Roberts allowed six earned runs in six innings while striking out five. To call his effort dull would be appropriate. "It was not a typical Willis Roberts outing," said Hargrove, adding, "This wasn't a terrible outing for Willis, but it wasn't typical."
Hargrove believes Roberts possesses the potential to one day win 20 games, but last night wondered if a language barrier may have led to "a very real chance that he misconstrued" Saturday's discussion about composure on the mound. "That's what we're going to find out and correct," he said.
Wiley theorized that an extra day between starts may have complicated Roberts' preparation.
For the second time this season, the Orioles couldn't complete a series sweep against a Tigers team surprisingly lacking in defensive fundamentals and bullpen help. None of their shortcomings was exposed last night, however, as the Orioles crumbled around Roberts.
The Tigers stranded only one hitter through seven innings. They beat a pitcher who had befuddled them three weeks before.
The hard-throwing Roberts (4-3) has sprung a leak since opening the season 4-0 with a 1.95 ERA. Until last night, his problems could be called a Yankee-related phenomenon as Roberts had allowed the three-time world champions 13 earned runs in his two starts covering 10 innings. But the Tigers are anything but championship-caliber. Roberts pounded them for seven innings in an April 25 win at Comerica Park. His only sin came on Tony Clark's seventh-inning home run.
This time Roberts fell behind 3-0, and then couldn't hold a 5-3 lead. The Tigers' three-run third inning was attributed in part to catcher Robert Fick's home run.
Detroit's three-run fifth began with an infield single and grew into four consecutive hits.
All spring Hargrove insisted that the only question Roberts needed to answer was his ability to hande adversity. Since losing his first, Roberts' slide has reached three straight starts, with a 10.75 ERA during the skid.
The Tigers began their third-inning rally with a classic piece of little ball. With runners at first and third thanks to a single, a steal, a catcher's throwing error and a walk, third baseman Shane Halter perfectly executed a squeeze bunt for a run. Two hitters later Fick hammered a two-run homer for a 3-0 lead.
Two weeks ago, the deficit would have represented a burial to the Orioles. But in the last week, they were revived offensively, raking the Yankees for at least 10 hits in three consecutive games and scoring five runs or more in four separate innings over the past eight games.
Last night's third inning became the latest example as Tigers knuckleballer Steve Sparks allowed six consecutive base runners to reach with one out. The Orioles sent 10 hitters to the plate.
Jerry Hairston's one-out double followed by Sparks' hitting Brady Anderson preceded Mike Bordick's two-run double, a game-tying double by Delino DeShields and Greg Myers' fourth home run, which caromed off the right-field foul pole for a 5-3 lead.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Twins' Eric Milton (5-2, 2.48) vs. Orioles' Jason Johnson (2-2, 3.63)