O's, like fans, quiet in home finale

The Baltimore Sun

The end of the Orioles' 2006 schedule at Camden Yards didn't come quickly, thanks to a 29-minute rain delay and a 3-hour, 5-minute game that featured 13 pitchers. But it did come quietly.

What seemed like hours after shortstop Miguel Tejada brought some excitement to the ballpark with his second home run, Chris Gomez swung through Joe Nathan's fastball, securing the Orioles' 6-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins and sending fans shuffling toward the exits.

It has become a tradition here for the players to thank the fans after the last game by throwing balls and equipment into the stands after the final out. But with a six-game road trip to close the season, the Orioles needed to hold on to their gear. So they retreated to their clubhouse with little fanfare and got dressed in front of half-empty lockers that were surrounded by moving boxes.

Many of the Orioles won't return to Camden Yards until April, if at all. In the midst of a ninth straight losing season that included a 40-41 home record, team executives have already said there will be offseason changes. Perhaps that is a first step in bringing back some fans.

Yesterday's crowd was 23,005, putting the Orioles' total in 81 home dates at 2,153,139 for the season. The average attendance was 26,582, the fifth lowest in the American League. The total, down nearly a half-million fans from last season, represented the lowest in the 15-year history of Camden Yards and the lowest for the club since 1988.

Even in the strike-shortened 1994 season, when the Orioles had only 54 home dates, the club sold 2,535,359 tickets.

"Winning games puts people in the stands," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "That is no secret to any place that you go. I thought we did some good things this year. It should help us next year. It really should. I think we can add some people over the winter and make us a better ballclub."

Playing against a team likely bound for the playoffs - the Twins' magic number for clinching the wild-card berth is now two - the Orioles were exposed again.

Adam Loewen steadied himself after a rocky start, but the 22-year-old rookie showed he is still prone to inconsistency. His fastball command erratic, Loewen allowed two runs in the first on catcher Joe Mauer's opposite-field home run. The Twins scored two more in the third, helped by Brian Roberts' error.

"[Roberts] is going to make that play 99 times out of a hundred. It was my job to pick him up," said Loewen, who allowed four runs (three earned) on eight hits while striking out eight through six innings. "I've learned something every outing, and I've probably had something to build on every outing. Sometimes, the toughest outings you learn the most from."

The Orioles made things interesting with two bases-empty home runs in the sixth from Tejada and Corey Patterson.

But the bullpen, an area that team executives have vowed to overhaul in the offseason, gave the two runs right back in the eighth. Russ Ortiz hit leadoff man Rondell White and then served up a long, opposite-field home run to Phil Nevin.

"When we got down 4-0, it looked like it was going to be a long day, but the guys battled hard," said Perlozzo, whose starting lineup did not include catcher Ramon Hernandez or third baseman Melvin Mora, who were sick. "We just couldn't hold them down."

There is a chance that yesterday marked Tejada's last home game as an Oriole, and if it was, he certainly went out in eventful fashion. The star shortstop, whom the club is not expected to shop this offseason, though club officials have said they are obligated to listen to offers, was named the Most Valuable Oriole before the game for the second time in three seasons as an Oriole.

In his first at-bat, he drilled rookie Matt Garza's 1-2 pitch into the left-field bleachers, his 23rd home run, breaking the longest homerless streak of his career. Tejada had gone 120 at-bats without a homer.

He waited only two pitches to get his next home run, also going to left field. It was the 11th multi-homer game of his career.

"I always say I'm not a home run hitter," said Tejada, who has 208 hits, four shy of breaking Cal Ripken's single-second franchise record. "What's most important for me is being on the field every day and trying to get a hit for my team. When the home runs come, they come."

Tejada came up again in the seventh, and Perlozzo said he was sure with the way his shortstop was swinging that Tejada was going to hit his third home run. But with men on first and second and one out, Tejada swung through Pat Neshek's 3-2 pitch and Gomez, who had extended his career-high hitting streak to 16 games in the inning, was thrown out at third on the hit-and-run.

Just like that, the Camden Yards crowd fell silent, as it has been for a good portion of the season.

"We were hoping to give the fans a little better to look at, to finish our season here," Perlozzo said. "Next year, hopefully we'll be playing for something at this point of time. We'll be hoping for late October."


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