NEW YORK - Mike Hargrove thinks it generally takes 40 to 50 games before a team finds out how good it can be, which is good news for his Orioles because they can't like the measuring stick provided by the first 15 games.
With an 8-4 loss last night at Yankee Stadium, behind the first shaky outing of the season by Scott Erickson, the Orioles fell to 4-11.
They have played five series without winning one yet, and as they packed for a late-night journey to Tampa Bay, they scrambled for ways to stay positive.
Hargrove held his head in his hands after the game, thinking about how the Yankees took two of three in this series after losing the first one Tuesday night.
"I think we played well," Hargrove said, assessing the series. "We won the first one and had our chances to win [Wednesday] night. We had a chance to win the one [last] night and just couldn't hold the lead."
The Orioles have had stretches with great pitching and abysmal hitting and stretches where any offensive fire has felt the cold water of a pitching staff gone bad. Jason Johnson, Sidney Ponson and Josh Towers are a combined 0-7 with a 6.52 ERA, but Erickson had been the staff's one saving grace with three solid starts.
Until last night.
Erickson (1-2) looked shaky from the beginning, and even when the Orioles gave him a 4-2 lead in the fourth inning, he gave it right back.
Shane Spencer had the decisive blow for the Yankees, a three-run homer with one out in the fourth inning that gave New York a 5-4 advantage.
Erickson went six, eight and seven innings in his first three starts, but last night he didn't make it through the fifth. Hargrove lifted him after he had thrown 109 pitches through 4 1/3 innings.
"His sinker was flat," Hargrove said. "He couldn't get any breaking balls over. When he threw strikes, he was up in the strike zone, and when he was down in the strike zone, it was called a ball. That's a tough combination. That's a tough way to go."
Since beating the Yankees on Opening Day, Erickson had twice been the victim of tough luck. He held the Boston Red Sox to one run through the first seven innings on April 6 but gave up a three-run homer to Nomar Garciaparra in the eighth and took a 4-2 loss.
In his third start, Saturday at Chicago, he handed a 3-2 lead to the bullpen, but the White Sox came back with two eighth-inning runs off reliever Willis Roberts for a 4-3 victory.
This time it was clear from the beginning that Erickson wasn't going to be sharp. He allowed five runs on eight hits and four walks.
"I threw too many balls, basically," Erickson said. "I threw 109 pitches in less than five innings, which is definitely no way to try to work your way through a lineup. I had a chance try to get a double play when I really needed it, and threw [Spencer] a pretty hittable pitch. That's the difference in the game."
David Wells (3-0), who baffled the Orioles for 7 1/3 innings in a 1-0 win on April 3, allowed four runs in eight innings this time, with all the runs coming in the fourth. His game could be divided into three parts: brilliant, bad, and brilliant again.
Wells retired the first eight Orioles hitters before Jerry Hairston doubled with two outs in the third inning. Melvin Mora flew out, ending that threat, but the Orioles strung together four consecutive hits to start the fourth.
Gary Matthews and David Segui singled and Jeff Conine followed with his first home run of the season, a three-run shot that gave the Orioles a 3-2 lead. They added one more, as Tony Batista doubled and later scored on a grounder to third by Marty Cordova.
But after Batista's double, Wells retired 10 in a row, and 14 of the final 16 batters he faced. The Yankees padded their lead with two sixth-inning runs off Orioles reliever Rick Bauer and another in the eighth against B.J. Ryan.
"We're playing good, just not good enough to win," said Segui, who left the game in the seventh inning with a sore left knee. "It's frustrating because one day we'll put it all together and we come out the next day and don't score."
Said Erickson: "It's pretty early in the season. A good winning streak, five or six games in a row, and we're right back where we need to be. So, it's far too early for people to start worrying."