Going straight to the ace

The Baltimore Sun

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Running out of ways to describe the recent dominance by teammate Erik Bedard, Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons went unconventional.

"He's been Hershiser-esque, really," Gibbons said.

Gibbons was making a comparison to former Los Angeles Dodgers' ace Orel Hershiser, who once pitched 59 consecutive scoreless innings. Bedard's streak never got remotely close to Hershiser's, ending at 21 innings when Mark Ellis hit a bases-empty homer with two outs in the sixth inning of the Orioles' 6-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Friday night.

The homer was the only hit given up by the left-hander, who struck out 11 A's in seven innings to win his fifth straight decision. It was the third time in his past five starts that Bedard has gone at least seven innings and allowed no runs.

"To almost hold another team to the minimum for three straight starts, that's something you just don't do," Gibbons said. "You just see how guys are swinging the bat against him. That curveball against righties, they weren't picking it up at all. It was just bad swing after bad swing. I've never seen anything like it. It's effortless, too."

As the pitching coach of great staffs with the Atlanta Braves, Leo Mazzone has seen plenty of dominant outings, but he marveled at Bedard's latest.

"I think it's been a little more than [a] three-start run. It's been a whole-season run," Mazzone said. "He's been absolutely outstanding."

Bedard, 9-4 with a 3.12 ERA, isn't sure he has ever pitched better. Asked whether he's in the midst of the best three-start run of his career, the typically stoic pitcher said: "I don't know the past. Maybe. ... You make the call."

The numbers certainly support that claim. In his past three starts, Bedard has totaled 23 innings and allowed only one run on six hits and five walks, and has struck out 33 batters. In his past six starts, he is 5-0 with a 1.94 ERA. Since a rocky April, Bedard has allowed two earned runs or fewer in 12 of 15 starts and three earned runs or fewer in all but one.

He has 167 strikeouts, 27 more than any other pitcher in the majors. Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana is second with 140 strikeouts. Bedard's 11 against Oakland represented the fifth time in 21 starts that he had double-digit strikeouts.

"When you've got a power pitcher like Erik Bedard that has all his stuff going, he's going to be tough," first baseman Kevin Millar said. "I think ... with him [throwing his] curveball for strikes at any time and he had both sides of the plate going with his fastball and cutter, you knew it was going to be a long night for Oakland.

"It's a sight to see him turn the corner the last two years because if he keeps his head on straight and stays healthy, his ceiling is as high as he wants it to be."

Millar also scoffed at the idea that Bedard, 28, who is 36-33 with a 3.87 ERA over parts of five big league seasons, is miscast as a staff ace.

"I think anybody in this league would take Erik Bedard as their ace," Millar said. "He's established himself as one of the toughest in this game."

Bedard's strong performance against a team that he had not beaten in six previous starts eased any concerns about the pitcher's health. He had been scheduled to start two nights earlier in the series finale against the Seattle Mariners, but awoke earlier in the week with a stiff neck and didn't feel good enough to throw a side session to prepare for the start.

So interim manager Dave Trembley started Daniel Cabrera on three day's rest in the 6-5 loss. It became obvious Friday night that pushing Bedard's start back a couple of days was a wise move, as he struck out five Oakland hitters in the first two innings.

"He sat next to me the whole time and he didn't say a word," Trembley said. "I guess his neck was OK. He pitched like he has been pitching all year. He was tremendous."

All Bedard needed was some run support, which has been difficult for the pitcher to get this season as he entered Friday's start with the lowest run support average in the league. But he got plenty Friday as the Orioles scored runs against A's starter Joe Blanton in five of the first six innings.

Five of the Orioles' six runs came on two-out hits, with leadoff man Brian Roberts ending Blanton's night with a two-out, two-run double in the sixth inning that pushed the visitor's lead to 6-0. Every Orioles starter had at least one hit, and catcher Ramon Hernandez was 2-for-4 with an RBI.

"We got all three ingredients - pitching, defense and timely hitting," Trembley said. "You get those three and you're going to win. But it starts with pitching."

The only drama that was left was Bedard's attempt to keep alive his scoreless-innings streak and his no-hit bid. But that ended with two outs in the sixth when Ellis ripped a fastball into the left-field seats.

"I don't care if I throw a no-hitter or not," Bedard said. jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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