- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2001


BALTIMORE Only three weeks ago, Willis Roberts was the best thing the Baltimore Orioles had going for them, a young pitcher with a live arm and good command of three different pitches.

Roberts, an obscure, eight-year minor leaguer who was released by two organizations in the last two years, was turning into the Orioles' latest find from of the Dominican Winter League, following Jose Mercedes' stunning turnaround in 2000.

But after suffering his third straight defeat last night, 7-5 to the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards, Roberts' status as a Rookie of the Year candidate is withering as Baltimore perhaps begins to learn why the Tigers and Cincinnati Reds gave up on the pitcher.

The same Detroit lineup that produced just one run off Roberts on April 25 at Comerica Park clearly had the 25-year-old right-hander figured out last night, posting a pair of three-run innings to offset the Orioles' five-run third.

Baltimore's three-game winning streak and any hopes of its first series sweep were dashed. The surprising Minnesota Twins come to town to open a three-game series tonight.

"It was not a typical Willis Roberts outing," manager Mike Hargrove said succinctly.

After dazzling the American League through his first four starts, Roberts has been anything but sharp in his last three. He lost his composure Friday at Yankee Stadium when a handful of borderline pitches weren't called strikes and saw his night end after three innings.

Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley talked with the young hurler about controlling his emotions, and he seemed to take those instructions to heart, perhaps too much. Hargrove and Wiley noticed a less aggressive pitcher last night, one whose velocity dropped a good 4 or 5 mph.

"Willis, from everything I can gather, was just making a really concerted effort tonight to not overthrow and stay within himself," Hargrove said. "Willis can't do that. He's an aggressive pitcher, and that's what he needs to be."

Roberts (4-3) also continued a disturbing trend of faltering when he has to pitch from the stretch. Hargrove is aware of Roberts' penchant for giving up hits in bunches; in his last three starts, opponents have posted two three-run innings, two four-run innings and one five-run inning.

"You work on him having better mechanics out of the stretch," Hargrove said. "As we go along, we'll find out. Right now, the numbers don't lie."

Detroit picked up its first three runs in the third on a perfectly-executed safety squeeze by Shane Halter and a two-run homer by Robert Fick.

The Orioles responded with a big inning of their own in the bottom half. Baltimore got doubles from Jerry Hairston, Mike Bordick and Delino DeShields and a towering, two-run homer just inside the right-field foul pole by Greg Myers to cap the team's fourth inning of five or more runs in its last eight games.

But the Orioles couldn't do anything else with Tigers knuckleballer Steve Sparks (4-4), who allowed just three runners to reach base in his other 4 2/3 innings.

"I had a talk with Eric Davis about hitting knuckleballers, and he said just get on the plate and be aggressive," Hairston said of his approach against Sparks. "Anything that's up in the zone, you try to hit. Anything below the waist, you lay off. In [the third] inning, he had a couple pitches up, and we capitalized on it. Other than that, he kept them in the game."

Detroit's offense, meanwhile, broke through for three runs against Roberts again in the top of the fifth, tagging the Baltimore starter for four straight hits, including Fick's two-run double that gave the backup catcher four RBI for the night.

Roberts was done one inning later, surrendering six runs and seven hits while dropping his third straight decision. The rookie's ERA, which stood at 1.95 on May 1, has ascended to 5.15 over the last 17 days.

"He just didn't have that explosive fastball," catcher Brook Fordyce said. "He still has the stuff to get batters out. We just didn't get it done today."

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