- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2000

BALTIMORE Jose Mercedes didn't give a performance worthy of his last name but it hardly mattered because the rest of the Baltimore Orioles' lineup seemed to be hitting on all cylinders.

It still may be early in the season, but the 2000 Orioles are a loose, confident and free-swinging group and yesterday they shrugged off an early hole that Mercedes, their fifth starter, dug for himself. They continued to slap away at the Detroit Tigers' iffy pitching en route to their fifth straight win, an 11-6 victory before 41,178 on a cold and blustery day at Camden Yards.

"We're getting production from every part of the lineup and the confidence is growing," said Will Clark, who moved from first base to designated hitter yesterday. "We're setting a good tone for the rest of the season. These games count just as much as the games in September and those games won't be important if we don't win these."

The Orioles offense produced 16 hits and scored their runs without the benefit of a home run or a triple. The Orioles knew that with a shaky pitching staff they would need to score plenty of runs to be successful and thus far, they've come through except when Mike Mussina starts.

In the two games started by Mussina, the ace of the staff and one of the best pitchers in baseball, the Orioles have scored just three runs and needed an extra inning to get one of them. In their other four games, the Orioles have scored a whopping 42 runs.

"This team is going to score a lot of runs so the important thing is not to get too far behind," said Mercedes, who righted himself after a poor start. "When the team is scoring a lot, you can relax and pitch more aggressively."

After two straight losing seasons the Orioles' 5-1 start is certainly cause for optimism. It should be noted that just two years ago, Baltimore began the year 10-2 then collapsed and finished 79-82.

But that was the Ray Miller era and he never had the respect, or track record, that current manager Mike Hargrove has earned. According to veteran Orioles, the inexperienced Miller seemed like he was trying to prove his baseball prowess and often over-managed.

By contrast, Hargrove is making subtle moves and so far, they've been the right ones. Yesterday Hargrove rested Brady Anderson, Harold Baines and Charles Johnson even though the catcher began the day leading the American League in home runs and RBI against Tigers southpaw C.J. Nitkowski.

All the moves paid off. Rich Amaral, Anderson's replacement, went 3-for-5. Jeff Conine took Baines' place in the batting order (though he played first base for Clark while Clark replaced Baines at DH) and went 3-for-5. Willie Morales, making his major league debut, went 2-for-4 in place of Johnson.

They were not the only offensive heroes as several players, who have gotten off to good starts, were major contributors yesterday.

• Second baseman Delino DeShields continues to make the Jerry Hairston debate a non issue as he went 2-for-4 lifting his average to .320 and stole two bases. Hairston, who tried to unseat DeShields, was demoted to Class AAA Rochester yesterday.

• Albert Belle is making slow starts a thing of the past. The volatile slugger, who hit .234 last April, went 3-for-4 and raised his average to .333.

• Clark is showing that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. After an injury-plagued 1999, the 36-year-old Clark was considered washed up by many experts. He's healthy this year and went 1-for-4, driving in three runs. He's batting .500 and has a .640 on-base percentage.

The Orioles needed all of their contributions yesterday as Mercedes made his Orioles' debut and his first major league appearance since May 4, 1998. Predictably, Mercedes struggled.

Mercedes gave up a lead-off triple to Luis Polonia, who later scored during a three-run first inning. When the inning ended, the pitcher had thrown 49 pitches.

"He had a lot of adrenaline running through him I think that caused him to be wild early," said Morales. "But he calmed down and prevented us from having to go to the bullpen too early."

Mercedes threw 30 pitches the next inning, prompting Hargrove to get the bullpen ready. But Mercedes escaped the second without yielding a run and didn't give up another until Dean Palmer homered in the fifth. By then the homer didn't matter.

The Orioles got two runs back in the bottom of the first when center fielder Juan Encarnacion lost Conine's fly ball in the sun which allowed B.J. Surhoff and Belle to score.

In the second, the Orioles sent 11 batters to the plate and scored six runs on five hits all singles and two walks. Mike Bordick, Amaral, DeShields, Conine, Cal Ripken with a walk; he remained six hits shy of 3,000 and Clark each drove in a run as the Orioles went ahead 8-3.

Clark doubled in two more runs in the fourth. Tim Worrell replaced Mercedes in the sixth and gave up two irrelevant runs and Buddy Groom pitched two scoreless innings as the overhauled bullpen continued to improve.

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