- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

BALTIMORE — Pat Hentgen won the Cy Young Award in 1996. Last night at Camden Yards, the 35-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher went back in time.

Hentgen pitched eight shutout innings in his longest outing of the season as the Orioles defeated the Boston Red Sox 2-1 before 41,118. He allowed three hits before giving up a lead-off homer to Johnny Damon in the ninth. Jorge Julio then came in and retired the next three batters to earn his 25th save.

It was Hentgen’s most impressive outing since arriving in Baltimore in 2001 and starting on Opening Day. He underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery later that season and was out until late in 2002. The right-hander, who went 20-10 with a 3.22 ERA for Toronto in 1996, is finally looking like his old self.

“We are seeing him get farther away from his surgery date,” manager Mike Hargrove said. “He is throwing the ball well now, better now than before he got injured.”

Hentgen’s gem made a hard-luck loser out of John Burkett (8-5), who allowed two runs over seven innings. Hentgen (4-5) has won his last three starts coming off a career-high five-game losing streak. He used a particularly effective cutter and sinker to baffle the Red Sox.

“I think I’m back,” said Hentgen, whose fastball topped out around 90 — six or seven mph faster than when he began the season in the bullpen. “Compared to where I was when I left Florida [after spring training], it’s good to have a little life on my ball.”

Hentgen didn’t need much batting support. The Orioles took a 1-0 lead in the fourth when Jay Gibbons delivered an opposite-field, two-out double into the left-field corner and scored on Tony Batista’s bloop to shallow center, which fell in after a spectacular diving effort by the charging Damon.

The Orioles added a well-executed run in the eighth. Larry Bigbie led off with a double to left and went to third on Jeff Conine’s sacrifice. Brook Fordyce then provided a run-scoring single to left.

“That’s the best we have seen him in a couple of years, since he had the surgery,” Boston manager Grady Little said of Hentgen. “He’s real close to being where he was earlier in his career.”

Hentgen also was energized by strong defense behind him. The pitcher pumped his fist when right fielder Gibbons made an acrobatic leaping catch on the warning track to rob Trot Nixon of an extra-base hit in the fourth. Shortstop Jose Morban also started a nifty double play to end the fifth.

The pitcher’s outing gave the Orioles something to feel good about after a difficult last two days. On Thursday, Baltimore dealt ace Sidney Ponson to San Francisco for three pitchers. Later that night, the Orioles blew a late four-run lead and lost to Minnesota in 10 innings. But Hentgen’s strong effort gave the Orioles a welcome boost.

“He stepped up big when we needed somebody to do it,” Hargrove said. “He stepped up and showed why he is a Cy Young winner.”

Notes — Washington Freedom star Mia Hamm was in attendance last night to support her fiancee, Red Sox All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. … The game started after a 14-minute rain delay but took only 2:20 to play … Baltimore’s Melvin Mora missed his fourth consecutive start with a sprained right wrist. …

Damian Moss, one of the pitchers acquired from the Giants, is slated to start Monday against Minnesota. The other newcomers are Kurt Ainsworth, currently on the disabled list, and minor leaguer Ryan Hannaman.

Hargrove was asked if losing his top pitcher diminishes the team’s chances of finishing with a .500 record and if that could affect his status. “I don’t think it hurts at all,” Hargrove said. “In this job, even being in the last year [of his contract] and it being August, you still have to look long-term. My job loyalty is with the Orioles, and making the Orioles as good as we can be, not only now but for later.”

Said first baseman Conine, the longest-tenured Oriole in his fifth season: “You take away your best pitcher and record-wise, it might [hurt]. But maybe these [new] guys will come in and step up.”

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