Mariners too hot for Orioles, 3-2

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SEATTLE - One team gave away an unearned run and committed two errors, heaved an ill-timed wild pitch and walked twice as many hitters as it struck out. The other team received a complete game from its starting pitcher, pressured its opponent throughout the latter innings and committed no errors.

But last night, the Orioles were unrewarded for playing the tighter game against the Seattle Mariners. Willis Roberts (5-4) finished what he started only to absorb a 3-2 loss before 30,413 at Safeco Field.

Simply put, the Orioles had no Ichiro.

In their first exposure to the gifted, charismatic Japanese leadoff hitter, Ichiro Suzuki, the Orioles could only marvel at the exploits of the Mariners right fielder who turned the game with three running or sliding catches near the right-field line and broke a 1-1 tie with a fifth-inning RBI single.

Using a mix-and-match bullpen, the Mariners held up behind Freddy Garcia (5-0) to improve their major league-best record to 38-12 while the Orioles retreated to two games below .500 (24-26).

A nine-game, two-coast road trip manager Mike Hargrove grudgingly admitted might be considered a litmus test for his plucky team began with another offensive struggle against a solid pitching staff.

Four pitchers collaborated on a four-hitter that had the Orioles score only one of eight base runners in the final four innings. The Mariners countered with an early two-out home run and a late two-out RBI single sandwiched around Ichiro's game-winner.

Ichiro ended the game with his signature, a sliding catch while charging Jerry Hairston's pop into shallow right field. Had the ball dropped, Delino DeShields may have scored the tying run.

"He was the difference in the game," Hargrove said. "No other right fielder in the American League makes those plays. Maybe one, but not both."

Ichiro singled twice along with splicing together a defensive highlight reel. Now hitting .358 while placing second in early All-Star balloting, he has destroyed the myth that Japanese position players cannot thrive on this side of the Pacific.

"Why should anyone be surprised? The guy won seven straight batting titles," said designated hitter Brady Anderson, Ichiro's third-inning victim on a fly ball down the line. "I think you could send one of our better hitters over there and he probably wouldn't win seven batting titles in a row."

Last night began a test of diverging trends. The Orioles entered having hit .264 over their last 32 games and .284 in their last 16 games. But they had also struggled for a .221 (183-for-827) average vs. winning teams. The Mariners didn't offer much consolation with the league's third-ranked staff, including what is arguably its most balanced bullpen.

The steamrolling Mariners have suffered consecutive losses only three times this season and have yet to absorb a three-game losing streak. They just emerged from a six-game road trip to Minnesota and Kansas City in which they batted .333 and scored 50 runs. Nearly one-third of the way through their schedule, they've been held to fewer than five runs in consecutive games just four times, largely because of the breakthrough by Ichiro.

Hargrove looks upon the trip as part crusade. "You learn how to win just like you learn how to tie your shoes," he said. "It's also important to gain some respect from around the game. We haven't gotten any respect from Day One from anybody in the national media."

Holdovers from last year's team can remember the anticipation that accompanied the Orioles to New York for an early May series against the Yankees. The Orioles walked in 15-12 and walked out 16-14. Worse, their bullpen deficiencies were laid bare and they soon found themselves in a 2-13 spiral that cemented the front office's decision to purge many of its veterans two months later.

Last night the Orioles needed to shake up a pitching staff that offers one of the game's most stable rotations.

Garcia, a hulking right-hander who entered last night 13-5 over the last two seasons, held the Orioles hitless for four innings. He was helped by a first-inning double play that overcame two walks and by Ichiro's catch to rob Anderson to end the third. The Mariners actually produced only one more base runner than the Orioles in the first four innings.

The Mariners took a 1-0 lead in the third inning when left fielder Mark McLemore crushed an inside fastball for his fourth home run. McLemore had earlier extended his hitting streak to nine games by rifling a grounder through shortstop Mike Bordick.

Roberts shook off catcher Brook Fordyce's call for a split-fingered pitch, instead feeding McLemore the inside fastball he seemed to be expecting. "It's his game; I have no problem with that," Fordyce said. "What if I call a split-finger and he hangs one. He has to throw the pitch."

Again pitching quickly and aggressively, Roberts has revived gestures made familiar two decades ago by Atlanta's Pascual Perez. He snaps at return throws from his catcher when upset by an umpire's call and will run backward up the mound after overpowering a hitter for a strike. He celebrated his strikeout of Mike Cameron to end last night's fourth inning by turning his back and screaming.

The Orioles' lineup finally made a statement against Garcia in the fifth inning. Melvin Mora began a rally with a one-out single and took third when DeShields singled to right field and took second behind Ichiro's throw after Mora. Fordyce managed his seventh RBI by grounding weakly against a relaxed infield, scoring Mora.

A tie game lasted only three hitters. The Mariners used four singles against Roberts to carve a two-run inning and a 3-1 lead.

Part of the Ichiro phenomenon has been his ability to exploit clutch situations. He entered last night hitting .524 with runners in scoring position. Held hitless his first two at-bats, he extended the tear in his third.

Singles by Carlos Guillen and David Bell created a first-and-third situation with one out. After several failed pickoff attempts by Roberts, Ichiro turned on a fastball for a line single to score Guillen for a 2-1 lead. The single gave Ichiro at least one hit in 46 of 50 games.

Designated hitter Edgar Martinez lined a one-hop single through the hole between first and second base to bump the lead to 3-1.

The Mariners likewise assisted the Orioles drawing to within 3-2 in the sixth inning. A sloppy play by center fielder Cameron on Anderson's leadoff single allowed Anderson to take second base. The extra base became huge when Ichiro made another running catch, this one in foul ground against Bordick. Anderson tagged and was able to score on Chris Richard's grounder to second base.

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