- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. It may not have seemed like it as yesterday's events unfolded, but weeks from now the Baltimore Orioles may look back on this weekend's series with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays including yesterday's 10-8 win in 11 innings as a turning point in their season.

And not just because the Orioles took two out of three from the lowly Devil Rays, though you won't find anyone complaining. More importantly, Baltimore seemed to get answers to several lingering questions.

There was a much-improved showing from starting pitcher Jose Mercedes, who was coming off three consecutive rough outings. There was the emergence of reliever Chad Paronto, who earned his first major-league win and bailed out closer Ryan Kohlmeier, who gave up back-to-back home runs and blew a three-run ninth-inning lead.

Front and center, though, was the sudden resurgence of an offense that came to town batting a collective .201 and left having amassed 21 runs and 35 hits. In yesterday's win their third 11-inning victory of the young season the Orioles established season-highs for both runs and hits (16, bettering Saturday's 11-hit outburst).

"It would have been very easy to take time to regroup and recover after giving up three runs the way we gave it up, but our guys didn't do that," manager Mike Hargrove said. "They came back. Chad Paronto pitched a great 10th I think that kind of raised everybody's confidence, and then we were able to score the runs we scored off a tough pitcher in [Devil Rays closer Esteban] Yan."

On an individual level, Hargrove had to be pleased to see two of his primary offensive weapons Delino DeShields and David Segui spring to life after abysmal starts to the season. DeShields, who was batting .106 entering the series, went 2-for-5 and drove in the game-winning run yesterday. He was 7-for-14 in the series and raised his average 91 points.

Segui picked up three more hits yesterday to give him seven in the series and raised his batting average from .167 to .271. He was forced to leave the game in the ninth inning went he was spiked in the left hand while trying to break up a double play. X-rays came back negative and Segui is not expected to miss any time.

In a somewhat prophetic statement, Hargrove said before the game he expected it would be only a matter of time before both players began performing up to their historical standards.

"It's real easy to get caught up in the fact that some of our go-to guys right now are hitting .180 or .160, and you think, 'What in the world is wrong? " Hargrove said. "But I think we all need to step back and realize that we're barely two, three weeks into the season."

They may have departed for Detroit last night with spirits high, but the Orioles nearly squandered their effort. With his team leading 8-5 in the bottom of the ninth, Kohlmeier got himself into instant trouble, walking leadoff hitter Damian Rolls. He did get Felix Martinez to ground into a force out and Gerald Williams to pop out, then got the count to 3-2 on Russ Johnson.

Kohlmeier, one strike away from recording his fourth save of the season and 17th in 18 career tries, served up a two-run homer to Johnson that made the score 8-7 and brought the crowd of 18,934 at Tropicana Field to life. Three pitches later, Greg Vaughn sent a high fastball well over the left-field fence (his fourth home run of the year, all against the Orioles) to tie the game and send it into extra innings.

Despite his seemingly solid record, Kohlmeier has built a reputation for getting himself into trouble, usually via the walk. Accordingly, he was more upset with the leadoff walk to Rolls than he was with either home run.

"I've had a few where I've struggled with my control," Kohlmeier said. "For a closer, that's a cardinal sin. You can't come in and walk a guy."

Kohlmeier avoided a bad loss, though, thanks to Paronto's impressive two innings in relief and another offensive rally. Melvin Mora led off the 11th against Yan (1-1) by reaching on an error by shortstop Felix Martinez, then moved to second when Brady Anderson (who hit a 3-run homer earlier) laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt.

"Bunting off a guy that throws like Yan does isn't easy," Hargrove said. "That was as good a bunt as you'll ever see. It really set up the inning."

Mike Bordick (3-for-4) followed with a single, then DeShields drove in Mora with a hard grounder through the right side. Jerry Hairston, a late defensive replacement who was batting for Segui, lined a single to right to score another run and put the Orioles back up by two.

That was more than Paronto (1-0) needed. The rookie right-hander, who tossed two scoreless innings in his debut on Wednesday, retired all six batters he faced yesterday and struck out three, including Johnson to end the game and record his first career victory.

"It feels great," Paronto said. "Since you're five years old, that's what you dream about happening."

After three straight rough outings to begin the season, Mercedes came in needing to right his ship. While his final numbers (four runs and six hits in seven innings) won't raise many eyebrows, Mercedes was working with some of his best stuff of the year. He struck out a career-high eight batters and walked two, at least temporarily quashing any concerns he had raised over the last three weeks.

"Mechanically, I felt real comfortable today," said Mercedes, who was in line to earn his first win of the season before the late Tampa Bay rally. "My fastball was working real well. Everything was fine."

Note Melvin Mora, the team's regular center fielder, moved in to start at second base as Jerry Hairston took the day off. Mora has considerable experience as an infielder; while with the New York Mets last year he played 42 games at shortstop, 16 in center field, 12 in left field, four at second base and three in right field. Once traded to the Orioles, he appeared in 53 games exclusively at shortstop. Mora was charged with an error in the fifth inning yesterday when he dropped a relay throw from Chris Richard.

"Melvin's played everywhere," Hargrove said. "He hasn't played second base this year, but he's been taking groundballs at short and second."

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