- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

BALTIMORE As if their 2001 season hadn't been wacky enough to this point, the Baltimore Orioles outdid even themselves during last night's 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Thirteen games into the year, who would have thought the first starting pitcher to earn a victory would be Jason Johnson, a man who hadn't won a game he started in a year and a half?

And who would have pegged backup catcher Greg Myers, a man allegedly on the trading block for the last two months, as the team's top offensive producer?

The Orioles can thank both of them for last night's win. Johnson tossed six innings of three-hit ball to pick up the win, amazingly the first by a Baltimore starting pitcher this season. And Myers, starting for the third straight day, went 2-for-3 with a home run and 3 RBI, ending the night as the team leader in both categories.

Their combined performances helped the Orioles salvage a four-game split with the Devil Rays and brought them back within one game of the .500 mark going into a three-game home series with the Cleveland Indians.

"We're slowly but surely getting to the point where we all feel good when Jason takes the mound," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I like it when Jason pitches. I couldn't say that last year, but I can now."

The organization can only hope this week's matchup with a perennial playoff contender draws more interest from local fans than Tampa Bay did. Last night's game at Camden Yards was viewed by only 24,558 fans, the smallest crowd in stadium history for a regularly scheduled contest.

Those who did make it out on a chilly night witnessed an encouraging pitching performance from Johnson and another display of the Orioles' station-to-station offense that has managed to up its production in recent days.

Johnson, coming off a disastrous season in which he posted a 1-10 record, had his second solid start in three outings this year to notch his first win as a starting pitcher since Sept. 1999.

The difference? "I'm much more relaxed," he said.

It also helped that the 27-year-old right-hander has a newfound command of his pitches. Never was that more evident than last night, when Johnson (1-0) threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 22 batters he faced.

"That's huge," he said. "The hitter gets behind 0-1 and all of a sudden he's on the defensive. It's really important to get that first strike."

While hesitant to get overly excited over Johnson's two good starts to back up an impressive spring, the Orioles are becoming more confident in his abilities with each outing.

"It was important for him and important for us to be able to see him do that," Hargrove said. "That was the big question coming into the season, was what kind of spring was Jason going to have? Once he had the spring he had, the second question was 'Can he continue to do that?' And he's done that so far."

Johnson says his confidence is sky-high at the moment, so much so that he felt Myers' second-inning home run last night was all the offensive support he would need. As it turns out, he would get plenty more.

In scoring six runs against the Devil Rays, Baltimore matched its season-high for run production, set two days ago in a 6-5 win over the same Tampa Bay squad. Much as they did on Saturday, the Orioles nit-picked their way around the bases: a single here, a stolen base there, a wild pitch here. They also managed to score a run in four different innings for the first time this year.

Already leading 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Baltimore blew the game open with only one clean hit. Jerry Hairston was plunked by reliever Ken Hill to lead off the inning, then moved all the way to third on a pair of wild pitches. Brady Anderson and Mike Bordick both walked to load the bases, then Delino DeShields hit a comebacker to Hill. The 35-year-old right-hander's throw to the plate was high, though, pulling catcher John Flaherty off the base and allowing Hairston to score.

"I was in between my stride, and I tried to make that adjustment," said Hill, who walked two, tossed two wild pitches and hit a batter in 2/3 of an inning. "I tried to get it out of my glove and couldn't get it. I rushed it."

Two batters later, Myers (who started at designated hitter) sent a two-run single to right field to break the game open, giving him three RBI on the night and eight over the last three days (enough to make him the team's season RBI leader).

Getting his third start in as many days, Myers once again provided an offensive spark for the Orioles' struggling offense. He led off the bottom of the second and clobbered a 1-0 pitch from Ryan Rupe (0-2) 412 feet over the center-field fence for a solo homer, his team-leading second of the season.

Hargrove acknowledged he's tempted to give Myers another start, if the 34-veteran is up to it.

"I think we'll want to run Greg out there again," he said. "I made sure to ask him tonight if I was wearing him out."

The Devil Rays tied it up in the top of the fifth when Flaherty doubled to right-center and Felix Martinez brought him home with a groundball single past Bordick.

But Baltimore would strike right back in the bottom of the inning. Hairston led off with a single, then stole second on Bordick's strikeout. DeShields, batting an AL-worst .083 entering the game, flaired an RBI-single over third base for his second hit of the night.

"I felt like I was going to do something," DeShields said. "I just felt more confident today."

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