Sleepwalking Orioles stumble again

The Baltimore Sun

TORONTO -- Less than a week ago, it was the Orioles' opponent the past three days that was the reeling team. The Toronto Blue Jays had been ravaged by injuries and discarded into last place by a nine-game losing streak that prompted speculation that their manager's job was in jeopardy.

The Orioles can now relate. They limped - or, more appropriately, sleepwalked - home last night carrying the look of a defeated group. They again did nothing offensively, held to three hits and one run by A.J. Burnett, who pitched a complete game. They again didn't benefit from a fill-in starting pitcher holding down a tough offense for five innings. And they again let their frustration be visible for all to see.

After falling, 2-1, to the Blue Jays before an announced 24,339 at Rogers Centre, pinch runner Freddie Bynum and first base coach Sam Mejias exchanged heated words as they came off the field after the final out.

It was an appropriate end to the northern part of a six-game road trip that restarts tomorrow with three games in Washington against the Nationals.

"It's early in the season," said first baseman Kevin Millar, who had two of the Orioles' three hits off Burnett and accounted for their only run with a third-inning homer. "That's the only positive thing right now."

Now sitting at about the quarter point of the 2007 campaign after getting swept for the fifth time this season, the Orioles (18-23) are a season-worst five games under .500. They have matched their season high with five straight losses, and only percentage points separate them from last place in the American League East.

After Sunday's collapse in Boston, where they squandered a five-run ninth-inning lead, they vowed not to let that loss linger, but during this series they looked uninterested at some points and discouraged at others.

Jay Payton and Melvin Mora nearly fought in the dugout Monday night. The Bynum-Mejias post-game conversation last night didn't appear to escalate to that point, but it did provide further evidence that Monday's squabble may not have been an isolated incident, as the players made it out to be.

Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, who job security is scrutinized more extensively after each loss, already has enough to worry about, including trying to find a way to jump-start his offense.

"We just haven't hit," he said. "We need to get our offense going. ... There are only so many things you can do out there as far as your lineup is concerned."

The Orioles scored five runs in the three games, and only two in the last 24 innings of the series. In the process, the Orioles wasted three starts that were good enough to put them in position to win. Orioles starters gave up seven runs in 20 innings in the series.

"We wasted it," left fielder Jay Gibbons said. "We didn't do a thing with the bats."

Brian Burres gave up two earned runs on seven hits and one walk in five innings last night. All seven hits were singles, and two of them brought in runs. Aaron Hill tied the game at 1 with a fourth-inning single and Troy Glaus broke the tie with a hit in the next inning. The Orioles still need Burres to get deeper in games but, for now, they'll settle for the left-hander keeping them in them.

A night earlier, Orioles hitters managed one run in 8 2/3 innings against a 22-year-old who had never pitched above Double-A. Last night was a little easier to fathom because Burnett's talent has always been tantalizing, including to the Orioles, who tried to acquire the pitcher before the 2005 trade deadline.

The scouting report on Burnett is that if he is throwing strikes and getting his curveball over, it can be a long night. The Orioles can attest.

"Today was his day," shortstop Miguel Tejada said. "Everything he threw today just worked. To me, he's one of the best pitchers we've seen this year."

Burnett struck out the side in the first inning, blowing away the first two hitters he faced on a total of six pitches. Three of the only balls the Orioles hit hard all night came in the second inning, and all of them were caught.

After Millar's fourth home run to lead off the third, the Orioles didn't get another man to even touch second base.

Burnett (4-3) retired 13 straight after Millar's one-out single in the fifth, a stretch that ended only when he walked Tejada with two outs in the ninth. He rebounded to get Aubrey Huff to meekly flail at an off-speed pitch to end the game and registered his 10th strikeout.

"I thought those middle innings ... his breaking ball wasn't quite as good," Perlozzo said. "When we didn't get to him, those last couple of innings he found his breaking ball and it made it extremely tough on everyone."

The players seemed at a loss to explain why their offense was so inept in this series. They also seemed conflicted on whether the timing of today's day off was welcome.

For Perlozzo, it will be another day to hear more scrutiny and to try to figure out a way to get his struggling ballclub going. For a slumping Tejada, it will be another day that passes without his team getting back in the win column.

"You always appreciate a day off, [but] when you've lost so many games like this, you just want to keep playing," he said. "I think the only way you get out of the slump is to keep playing baseball."

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