- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

INDIANS 8, ORIOLES 1

BALTIMORE If fans of the Baltimore Orioles had reason to be optimistic during the early portion of the 2001 season, it likely was spurred by the team's standout starting pitching.

The same starting pitching that vanished over the last week.

What had been the Orioles' lone bright spot has suddenly become their undoing, as was the case last night in an uninspired 8-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians in front of a crowd of 28,679 that thinned out considerably by the sixth inning on a frigid night at Camden Yards.

Jose Mercedes became the latest victim, serving up five runs and six hits in five innings of work. The right-hander, who has yet to give up less than four runs in an outing this season, actually saw his ERA drop from 10.13 to 9.77.

"He just never really found his rhythm and settled in," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I thought he battled, but he wasn't very sharp tonight. With his pitch count [111] the way he was going, we were at one point wondering whether he was going to get through five [innings] or not."

Under normal circumstances, Mercedes' struggles wouldn't be a bitter pill for the Orioles to swallow. But given the current state of their rotation, with Sidney Ponson placed on the disabled list yesterday, Baltimore has little margin for error these days.

Through the first six games of the season (in which the Orioles posted a 3-3 record), the starting pitchers compiled a stellar 2.47 ERA. Over the last eight games (in which the Orioles have gone 3-5), the starting pitchers have a 7.23 ERA (8.64 if you take out Pat Hentgen's complete-game losing effort from last week).

The situation becomes all the more tenuous now that Ponson has been put on the 15-day DL with tendinitis in his right elbow. Ponson, who was scheduled to start Friday night in Tampa Bay, will be replaced in the rotation by rookie right-hander Willis Roberts, with reliever Chad Paronto recalled from Class AAA Rochester.

Mercedes, meanwhile, struggled through his third straight poor performance of the season last night. Coming off his cooler-tossing incident in Boston, he got off to a rough start, giving up three runs in the top of the first, all with two outs.

After retiring Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel to open the game, Mercedes served up a single to Roberto Alomar, then walked Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks to load the bases. Jim Thome sent a two-run single up the middle, then Wil Cordero beat out a soft roller down the third-base line to score another run and put the Indians up 3-0.

"It's all happening in one inning, where I'm losing control," Mercedes said. "Hopefully, all that stuff will be gone after today and I'll pitch better in the next game."

He settled down briefly after that, retiring 12 of the next 14 batters. He got into trouble again in the sixth, though, and after giving up a single and a double to open the inning, the 30-year-old with the new $2.75 million contract and the 0-3 record was pulled from the game.

"I thought his outing this time, while he struggled, was better than his last outing in Boston," Hargrove said. "I don't know how much the cold had to do with it all the pitchers had a tough time tonight. I'll wait to pass judgment on all that until we see Jose's next outing."

Left-hander B.J. Ryan came in to replace Mercedes but fared no better. He got Thome to fly out, then intentionally walked Cordero to set up a lefty-lefty matchup with Russ Branyan. The move hardly paid off Branyan belted Ryan's 3-2 pitch 430 feet into the Cleveland bullpen for a grand slam, blowing the game wide open.

A highly touted 25-year-old in only his second full major-league season, Ryan has been slow to develop. With last night's outing, he raised his ERA to 5.79 in five appearances, having given up two home runs and five walks in 4 2/3 innings.

"Anytime you put a major league player into a situation, regardless what their age or level of experience is, you expect them to succeed," Hargrove said. "B.J. needs to do that, but I think we also need to exercise a little patience with him. But when we walked Cordero, I expected him to get out of it."

The Indians added another run off Ryan thanks to two straight throwing errors by Jerry Hairston on tough plays to increase their lead to 8-1.

Baltimore's bats, which had seemingly come to life in last weekend's series with the Devil Rays, were silenced again last night, this time by Cleveland starter Dave Burba, who entered the game with a 7.84 ERA.

Burba (1-1) got out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the first when he induced a 5-4-3 double play off the bat of Cal Ripken.

"It was a huge play," Burba said. "You make one mistake, and it's a 4-0 ballgame. Fortunately for me and the Indians, I was able to make a good pitch in that situation and get the groundball."

Burba went on to shut down the Orioles after that, allowing only a second-inning solo home run to Chris Richard, a blast that cleared the out-of-town scoreboard in right field. Richard's first homer of the season was only Baltimore's fifth this year.

Burba went on to retire 12 straight batters after that before he was lifted after giving up a pair of singles in the seventh. Steve Reed and Justin Speier came on in relief and closed the door for Cleveland, tossing three scoreless innings to end the game.

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