The Orioles' record for most defeats by a pitcher to begin a season was creeping up on Jose Mercedes. Never mind the proverbial monkey resting on his back. Another loss, and Mercedes would be carrying Darwin's theory of evolution across his shoulders.
Mercedes didn't have a win in six decisions, leaving him two failures from joining Mike Boddicker and Jason Johnson on a dubious list of tortured underachievers. Given a lead in the fourth inning last night, he lost it after only three batters. Given the way his season had gone, there didn't figure to be another chance to stay ahead.
He got it when Chris Richard and Jerry Hairston homered in the fifth, but his first victory of 2001 faded from view as he sat in the dugout. Minnesota sent nine batters to the plate in the seventh and scored four times off reliever B.J. Ryan to defeat the Orioles, 7-5, before 40,041 at Camden Yards.
The Orioles (19-24) didn't get a hit off Twins starter Joe Mays until one out in the fourth, when shortstop Mike Bordick drilled his second home run of the season for a 1-0 Orioles lead. Bordick might have saved a run in the top half of the inning with a diving stop up the middle that resulted in a force at second base and blunted a Minnesota rally.
Richard homered off Mays in the fifth on a two-strike pitch to tie the score at 2, and Hairston added a two-run shot later in the inning for a 4-2 lead. Ryan (2-1) replaced Mercedes to begin the sixth and struck out two of the first three batters he faced, but the Twins opened the seventh with consecutive doubles by Cristian Guzman, who shattered his bat, and Denny Hocking. Corey Koskie stroked a one-out single to tie the game, and a grounder by Torii Hunter gave Minnesota the lead. Two straight infield hits provided another run.
A broken-bat single by Jeff Conine off Twins reliever Bob Wells in the eighth reduced Minnesota's lead to 6-5, but left fielder Jacque Jones made a diving catch of a liner by David Segui after racing toward the line to end the inning. Hunter homered off Buddy Groom in the ninth to ruin much of the suspense.
Mercedes began the night tied with the Texas Rangers' Rick Helling for most losses in the American League. At least Helling had one victory to savor. Mercedes knows only disappointment, the empty feelings after each start piling up at his locker.
"I think that I should perform better than what I did tonight," he said. "If I go seven innings, that gives us a chance. I was on and off, on and off, but I stayed out there long enough to give my team a chance to go ahead."
Said manager Mike Hargrove: "He struggled with his command all night, but he made pitches to get out of jams, and the defense bailed him out a couple times. We battled all night long. We just came up short."
The right-hander navigated through five troublesome innings, running his pitch count to 89 before Hargrove made the switch. He allowed seven hits and walked three, but the two runs were the fewest off him this season.
Mercedes was the last Oriole to leave the dugout before the first inning, clutching his cap in his right hand as he carefully stepped over the first-base line in keeping with his superstitious nature. As if this guy's luck could be any worse if his foot kicked up some chalk.
"I don't feel frustrated at all," he said. "I pitched well enough to get at least two or three wins. Things just are going the wrong way. I'm not going to blame it all on myself. We play as a union. I know at some point, things have to turn around."
Said Hairston: "I'd be frustrated, but what can you do? He can't hit for himself. He definitely put us in position to win tonight, and we didn't do it."
In his previous start, Mercedes left in the seventh inning with the score tied 3-3 before the Orioles jumped New York's Mariano Rivera for five runs in the 11th inning to defeat the Yankees, 10-5. All three runs off Mercedes came in the third inning, the same number he allowed to Tampa Bay in the first, to Cleveland in the first and to the Devil Rays in the third during another failed outing. Boston scored six runs off him in the fourth, and Minnesota reached him for five in the first last month.
The meltdowns can occur suddenly. Just as abruptly, he can return to the form that made him a 14-game winner last season. Sometimes, it happens in the same inning.
The Twins put runners on the corners with none out in the third on an infield hit and a single to right. Facing the third and fourth hitters in the Twins' lineup, Mercedes struck out Matt Lawton and got Koskie to bounce into a 3-6-1 (first baseman-shortstop-pitcher) double play. Mercedes spiked the ball in the dirt after taking Bordick's throw at first.
Minnesota already had put two runners on base in the second, and another moved into scoring position with one out in the fourth. But the Twins stranded nine.
"That was the old Jose. He pitched well enough to win," said catcher Brook Fordyce.
The Orioles were getting their second look at Mays, who earlier had limited them to two bases-empty home runs by Delino DeShields over seven innings in a 6-3 victory. All five runs off him in two games have been on homers. Mays left after six innings last night and improved to 6-2.
Mays had held opponents to a .190 average, third-lowest in the league, and his 2.30 ERA ranked second. He watched the Orioles strand two runners in the seventh against Eddie Guardado and another in scoring position in the eighth.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Chs. 54, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Twins' Mark Redman (2-4, 4.30) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (1-3, 6.08)