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Orioles 'pen is mightier

The Baltimore Sun

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- By the end of the fourth inning yesterday at Tropicana Field, the Orioles had the Tampa Bay Devil Rays exactly where they wanted them. Scott Kazmir, the Devil Rays' young ace, had already thrown 102 pitches and his afternoon was over.

That meant the game was in the hands of the Devil Rays' shaky bullpen, a proposition that the Orioles felt pretty good about.

The Orioles' game plan yesterday was to force Kazmir to throw a lot of pitches and get him into the clubhouse early, turning the game into a battle of bullpens. They executed it to perfection, tying the game with two runs off Kazmir in the fourth and then pushing three more across against Tampa Bay's bullpen to take a 6-4 victory before 10,540.

On a day when their own ace, Erik Bedard, again didn't have his best stuff and battled all afternoon to get in sync with catcher Alberto Castillo, the Orioles relied on a patient and timely offense and another flawless performance from their bullpen.

Bedard (3-1) left the game with two outs in the sixth inning and the Orioles' lead down to 5-4. But Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo used four relievers to get the last 10 outs, including closer Chris Ray, who struck out the side in the ninth for his fifth save. The bullpen retired nine of the 10 hitters it faced, helping the club improve to 8-7.

"It's unbelievable," said Ray, who has allowed one base runner in six appearances since surrendering the walk-off grand slam to New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez on April 7. "My job is a heck of a lot easier when you have all those guys before me going in there, setting the tempo, and keeping the momentum on our side and keeping the score the same when it gets to me. I'm throwing just one inning instead of an inning plus. The guys behind me are getting guys out left and right."

In the three-game series, the Orioles didn't have a starter pitch six complete innings, but they still won two of the three games. The bullpen, which was rebuilt this offseason to the cost of approximately $42 million after last year's group was the second worst in the league, allowed just six hits and one earned run in 13 innings of work.

"[The bullpen] has made all the difference in the world," said designated hitter Kevin Millar, whose bloop RBI double in the fifth inning scored Miguel Tejada and gave the Orioles a 4-3 lead. "That's what [the front office] attacked this offseason ... and it is paying off right now."

The bullpen was needed earlier than Perlozzo hoped yesterday, as Bedard fought himself for much of the game. He allowed four runs in 5 2/3 innings, including a homer to Rocco Baldelli, the first batter he faced. Bedard had eight strikeouts, but the Devil Rays (6-9) also recorded seven hits and three walks and forced him to throw 109 pitches.

At times, Bedard looked like he did two seasons ago, when he was unsure of himself and lacked confidence on the mound. During one sequence in the third inning, Bedard shook off Castillo five times.

Castillo, who had never caught Bedard before aside from a bullpen session, made several trips to the mound to confer with the pitcher, whose pace earned him boos from the home crowd.

"I made some adjustments about what to call and what not to call," Castillo said. "I just met him in spring training. ... After the third inning, I came to the dugout and talked to him. I said, 'I don't catch you at all in spring training. Give me a chance to get to know you.' We settled down together. He finished the fifth and then came out for the sixth. He didn't finish that inning, but he got the win. That's the most important thing."

Bedard left the clubhouse without speaking to reporters, but his manager acknowledged he felt a lack of familiarity with Castillo played a part in the pitcher's being out of sync.

"He couldn't get a rhythm going," Perlozzo said. "There was a lot of time in between pitches trying to get the right pitch down. It throws your rhythm off a little bit. He was struggling with that."

The Orioles' offense had no such problems against Kazmir, who beat Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana in his previous outing, but continued his struggles against the Orioles. In his past four starts against them, he is 0-1 with a 7.41 ERA and has logged a total of just 17 innings.

Perlozzo, whose club has struggled against left-handers the past couple of seasons, sat left-handed hitters Jay Gibbons, Aubrey Huff, Corey Patterson and Paul Bako, but their replacements each came up with clutch hits.

Freddie Bynum, playing center field in place of Patterson, tied the game at 1 with an RBI double in the second. The Orioles tied the game with two runs in the fourth on an RBI single by Chris Gomez and double by Castillo.

Jon Knott, making his first Orioles start, followed Millar's go-ahead RBI double with a single that scored Millar in the fifth, giving the Orioles a 5-3 lead.

The Orioles' regular contributors also pitched in. Tejada went 3-for-4, and Nick Markakis broke from a 3-for-16 slump to hit a bases-empty homer in the seventh. That gave the Orioles a 6-4 lead, but, by then, the game was already in the hands of the bullpen.

"They've been great for us," Tejada said. "That's really helpful because now we know that after we pass the sixth inning, if we're winning we have like a 90 percent chance that we're going to win the game."

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