- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2002

BALTIMORE Twice Mike Hargrove took that long walk to the pitcher's mound in the latter innings yesterday, his Baltimore Orioles' one-run lead over the Kansas City Royals looking tenuous with two runners on base in each situation. And in each instance Hargrove knew he was turning to his bullpen the question was whom would he summon.
In the past the bullpen was a problem, but these days Hargrove has more appealing choices than a kid at the ice cream shop.
"People have really fit into slots and roles to the point where we can really mix and match," the manager said of his up-and-coming bullpen. "Them doing their jobs the way they have gives you the luxury of making those kinds of decisions."
In yesterday's game, Hargrove chose to go with Rick Bauer to relieve starter Calvin Maduro in the seventh. Buddy Groom came in for Bauer in the eighth, and Jorge Julio finished things off in the ninth.
Game. Set. Match. The Orioles hung on to defeat the Royals 3-2 before 39,348 at Camden Yards, capping a four-game sweep and the most encouraging two weeks this franchise has seen in several years.
Winners in eight of their last 10 and 12 of their last 16, the Orioles climbed above the .500 mark (16-15) for the first time this late in the season since they held the same record May 8, 2000.
They swept all seven games from the Royals this year, their first season sweep of an American League opponent since they were 6-0 against the Minnesota Twins in the strike-shortened 1981 season.
And don't look now, but Baltimore is only 1 games behind the New York Yankees for second place in the AL East.
Looking for a good reason why the Orioles have done an absolute about-face since their 4-11 start? Look no farther than their relief corps, a chronic weakness for this club in recent years but now undeniably its biggest strength.
With 2⅔ scoreless innings from Bauer, Groom and Julio yesterday, Baltimore's bullpen has amassed a combined 4-1 record, 3.59 ERA and eight saves in 10 chances (the ERA plummets to 2.77 when you exclude Josh Towers' disastrous 10-run performance last Wednesday). Not bad for a seven-man group in which only two members had at least one year of major league service entering the 2002 season.
"But their stuff is otherworldly right now," said first baseman Jeff Conine, whose two-run homer opened the doors to a three-run sixth inning yesterday. "It's fun to watch them get up there and throw the ball. And playing first base, I get to hear all the comments from guys coming down there. They tell me how good their stuff is."
All three Baltimore relievers brought their best stuff to the table yesterday. Bauer, a 25-year-old rookie who has been a starter all his life, came in for Maduro with one out and two on in the seventh and promptly struck out both Carlos Febles and Chuck Knoblauch looking at inside fastballs.
"I'm not much of a strikeout pitcher," said Bauer, who lowered his ERA to 1.26. "I just hit my spots right then and there. The pitch to Knoblauch, I thought for sure he'd swing at it."
Bauer got into a bit of trouble with two outs in the eighth, leaving runners on the corners with the left-handed hitting Raul Ibanez coming up. In came Groom, who has been scored upon once in 12 outings this season.
Kansas City interim manager John Mizerock countered with right-handed pinch-hitter Joe Randa, but Groom froze him with an inside fastball for another called third strike.
That set the table for Julio to close out the ninth, and the rookie responded with a pair of strikeouts one on a 98-mph fastball, one on an 84-mph slider and a groundout to shortstop to wrap up his sixth save in seven attempts.
"It seems like everybody's starting to fill into their role right now," Bauer said. "And everybody's comfortable with that. Especially now, everybody thinks everybody else is going to get the job done."
The Orioles' bullpen had the opportunity to finish off the Royals thanks to 6⅓ strong innings from Maduro (2-3), who allowed only one earned run (a solo homer to Michael Tucker in the first) and struck out five.
And though Maduro's streak of poor offensive support (no runs in 17 straight innings through the fifth yesterday) continued because of some early wasted opportunities, Baltimore rallied for three in the sixth off Chris George (0-3). Conine's third homer of the season and an RBI single by Mike Bordick (who had three hits to raise his average from .153 to .180) highlighted the inning.
Only three weeks ago, a late two-run deficit would have been insurmountable for the Orioles' powerless lineup. No more.
"When we look up there and we're a couple of runs down, now we look at that as no big deal," Conine said. "We can put some runs on the board and come back. Before it was like, 'Oh, here we go again.' It's a big change from where it was at the beginning of the year."
Note
David Segui missed his sixth game in nine days with a sore left wrist yesterday, and the prognosis on the Orioles DH is no clearer now than it was a week ago. Segui, who hurt himself sliding into home plate April 26 in Kansas City, received a cortisone shot Saturday and will return to see a doctor early this week. Hargrove said the club knows "with certainty" that the injury is not to Segui's hamate bone (which would require surgery), but he has not ruled out the possibility of Segui's third trip to the disabled list in less than two years.


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