- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 28, 2002

BOSTON One by one, the Baltimore Orioles stepped into the batter's box against John Burkett yesterday thinking they knew how to hit the soft-tossing right-hander.
And one by one, they all retreated to the visitors' dugout at Fenway Park, confounded by Burkett's slow but lethal stuff and utterly demoralized from a 4-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox.
Mike Hargrove knew what to expect from the 37-year-old Burkett, whose fastball tops out around 85 mph and whose curveball crosses the plate around 65. And the Orioles manager made sure his hitters had a plan when they stepped to the plate.
That's why Hargrove was so frustrated afterward, having watched Burkett slice and dice his way through the Baltimore lineup in a four-hit shutout before 33,474 at Fenway.
"It's not lack of preparation. It's not lack of knowledge of what this guy's going to try to do," Hargrove said. "They're given those reports, and we talk to them all the time before and during the game. But young hitters have a tendency to forget about three-fourths of what you say between the dugout and home plate. Not all the time, but sometimes.
"A guy like this will really show against a young-hitting ballclub."
Truth be told, Burkett is having success these days against every club he faces, young or old. With yesterday's shutout his first since April 27, 2001, while pitching for the Atlanta Braves Burkett improved to 10-3 for the season, his only blips coming during a three-start slump in early June.
"I just think I have a lot more weapons now," said Burkett, who is 10-0 against the American League. "Slow weapons, but they're weapons."
The Orioles managed to reach base in just two innings and both times bailed Burkett out by hitting into double plays.
Chris Singleton led off the third with a single to right, and Geronimo Gil followed with a scorching line drive down the first-base line. Boston's Tony Clark made a leaping grab of the liner, then stepped on first for the double play before Singleton could make it back. Jerry Hairston then singled and stole second, but Melvin Mora struck out to end the inning.
In the sixth, Gil led off with a double that missed clearing the left-field wall by a couple of feet, then took third on another single by Hairston.
No matter. Burkett got Mora to pop out and rookie Howie Clark to ground into a 4-6-3 double play.
"He had us off balance all day," said Clark, who failed to reach base for the first time in 10 major league games. "He did whatever he wanted to do with us."
Clark was just one of several young hitters the Orioles sent out to face Burkett, and perhaps none epitomized the team's struggles more than Jay Gibbons. The second-year first baseman went 0-for-3 but saw a total of just six pitches in the game.
"I felt like we gave away a lot of at-bats today, swinging at bad pitches and in even or ahead counts," Hargrove said. "Jay Gibbons gave away three at-bats today you can't get much more young and inexperienced [than] he is."
Gibbons admitted being caught off guard by Burkett's atypical pitching method.
"He frustrated the heck out of us," Gibbons said. "His curveball is freaking 65 miles an hour. You don't see that very often. It makes his 85 mph fastball look about 100. It's really tough to adjust to that."
Even at his best, Burkett has been unable to work his way deep into games. He had not lasted more than seven innings before yesterday.
But with his pitch count so low (he finished with 111, 81 strikes) and the Red Sox sitting comfortably on a four-run lead, manager Grady Little left Burkett in to finish off only the sixth complete game shutout of his 14-year career.
"It's a lot of fun to be able to be out there in the ninth inning," Burkett said. "It doesn't happen very often for me."
Baltimore's Sidney Ponson is polar opposites with Burkett when it comes to his approach to pitching. Ponson, a power pitcher, is more apt to try to get a batter out by firing a fastball than trying to paint the corner with a breaking pitch.
For the most part yesterday, Ponson's method was successful. He didn't allow many hard-hit balls, though Trot Nixon's triple, Manny Ramirez's single off the Green Monster and Shea Hillenbrand's double highlighted a two-run fourth inning for the Red Sox. Gil's second passed ball of the game (and 15th of the season) allowed the first run to score.
Ponson's only true mistake, though, might have been a 3-2 fastball to No.9 hitter Lou Merloni in the bottom of the fifth. Merloni, a light-hitting infielder but a local crowd favorite, crushed Ponson's pitch over the left-field wall for his first homer at Fenway since May 15,1998.
"I didn't think it was a bad pitch; it was still down in the zone," said Ponson (4-5). "But 3-2, he was waiting for a fastball, he got it and he got good wood on it. I figured he might be looking for a breaking pitch, but I guess he wasn't."

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