- The Washington Times - Friday, July 12, 2002

BALTIMORE The Baltimore Orioles spent the first half of the season surprising opponents with a high-energy, highly competitive brand of play that led them to the cusp of the .500 mark.

So upon returning from a three-day, All-Star respite last night, one might have expected the Orioles to maintain that level of play and open the second half of the season just as they closed the first.

A lackluster 4-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics said otherwise.

"Anytime you start a season or restart a season, you want to get off to a good start," manager Mike Hargrove said. "Tonight for the first few innings, we were just a little flat, for whatever reason. I'm not so sure the A's weren't a little flat also. We just were a little flatter."

Such efforts are reluctantly accepted a few times during a 162-game season. But this one was difficult to swallow if for no other reason than its timing. It came following the Orioles' highly successful 4-2 road trip through Anaheim and Texas and with the possibility of a .500 record staring them straight in the face.

A victory would have left Baltimore at the .500 mark (43-43) for the first time since May11. If ever there was a game to get up for, this was it.

"It's like we felt weak in the first three innings," said leadoff hitter Melvin Mora (0-for-4). "I don't know if it was three days off or what. By the fifth inning, it all came back."

Actually, the Orioles didn't offer much resistance against the A's until the eighth, when they finally broke through for a run and three hits off reliever Jim Mecir. Before that, they managed just three singles off Mark Mulder (10-5), never seriously threatening against the Oakland left-hander, and gave the Camden Yards crowd of 32,507 little reason to get excited.

Baltimore displayed none of the traits that exemplified its recent trip West. A lineup that had begun to generate some offense was held hostage by Mulder last year's American League Cy Young Award runner-up. And a defense that has been one of the league's best went into an inexplicable funk during the third inning that helped lead to three Oakland runs.

"Everybody was a little flat and feeling their way through the first three innings, and then the tempo of the game picked up," Hargrove said. "But you see that a lot of the time [after the All-Star break]."

Hargrove ran his players through a rare infield practice yesterday afternoon. They apparently didn't pick up too many pointers.

Second baseman Jerry Hairston, who had worked hard to cut his error total down to two entering last night's game, let John Mabry's grounder go right through his legs in the second inning an embarrassing miscue, though one that was immediately followed by a fine play to retire Terrence Long.

The real trouble took place in the third inning. With two outs and a runner on second, Miguel Tejada roped an RBI double to right-center, bringing home Mark Ellis. David Justice beat out a chopper to Hairston's right, and Eric Chavez singled to right-center to score Tejada.

The uprising should have ended there, but right fielder Gary Matthews Jr. misplayed Chavez's hit, then took his time getting the ball back to the infield. That allowed the runners to advance to second and third, which proved costly when catcher Geronimo Gil couldn't handle Scott Erickson's next pitch. The passed ball allowed Justice to score the A's third run and produced a chorus of boos from the crowd.

"We didn't come out playing real sharp," said Erickson, who felt he could have tagged out Justice had he hung onto Gil's throw. "I myself made an error that inning, so there were almost four errors in one inning. What can you do?"

Erickson didn't allow any more runs in his seven innings of work, but the veteran right-hander was not particularly sharp. He threw a whopping 125 pitches, walked three and hit a batter. And for the 13th straight start, Erickson (3-9) failed to earn a victory, though his offense has accounted for just nine runs over his last five outings.

"You pitch seven inning and give up one [actually two] earned runs, you expect to get a no-decision at least," he said.

Notes Jeff Conine, out since June 15 with a strained right hamstring, was not activated from the disabled list yesterday as the Orioles had hoped. Conine had to cut short an afternoon workout when he had difficulties running the bases. His return doesn't appear imminent.

"I don't anticipate Jeff being ready for three or four more days at least," Hargrove said.

Outfielder Chris Richard, attempting to return from offseason shoulder surgery, had an MRI taken this week and has been shut down through Sunday. Richard experienced a recurrence of pain only three games into his rehabilitation assignment. Outfielder/first baseman Jay Gibbons was unavailable for last night's game after re-aggravating his lingering right wrist injury. Hargrove said he expects Gibbons to be able to play tonight.

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