SEATTLE - One team gave away an unearned run and committed two errors, heaved an ill-time 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 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 a pair of running 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 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 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.
The steamrolling Mariners have suffered consecutive losses only three times this season and have yet to absorb a three-game losing streak. 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 Japanese rookie outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
This week's schedule cuts the Orioles no break, either, as they'll see both undefeated Mariners starting pitchers - Garcia and one-time almost-Oriole Aaron Sele (7-0), whom general manager Pat Gillick famously described as arriving in December 1999 "like a star falling from the sky."
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 sliding catch on the right-field line to rob Brady Anderson of extra bases 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.
Roberts made an effort to pitch quickly and aggressively. No longer instructed by Hargrove to harness his emotion, 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 Delino DeShields singled to right field and took second behind Ichiro's throw after Mora. Catcher Brook 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 agaianst 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.
A decision to hold Ichiro rather than play behind him with two outs factored in the inning's second run. Designated hitter Edgar Martinez lined a one-hop single through the hole where David Segui might otherwise have been stationed if not influenced by Ichiro's speed.
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 went to third. He was able to score on Chris Richard's grounder to second base.