- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Orioles’ starting pitching woes disappeared for a weekend, but the team’s relievers didn’t follow suit.

The result: Arguably the team’s most devastating loss of the season, an 8-7 setback to the Atlanta Braves made possible by a seven-run bullpen meltdown in the eighth inning before 39,095 at Camden Yards.

Baltimore (30-41) wasted a strong outing from rookie left-hander Matt Riley as it fell 11 games under .500 for the first time this season.

“It is for me,” Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said when asked whether it was the Orioles’ most difficult loss of the year.

Mike DeJean, who has struggled all season, gave up a Eli Marrero single and J.D. Drew’s 15th homer to begin the eighth. After DeJean gave up another single, Mazzilli called on Jason Grimsley to extinguish the rally.

Instead, the veteran, who was acquired last week from Kansas City for touted prospect Denny Bautista, induced a grounder back to the mound and quickly threw it into center to help give the Braves’ rally further life.

After a strikeout, Grimsley (3-4) gave up four straight hits — including Nick Green’s double just off the outstretched glove of Luis Matos and Rafael Furcal’s bloop single just over the mound — and turned a 7-3 lead into a 7-7 tie before giving way to B.J. Ryan. The debacle infuriated the crowd, which only could groan when Marrero got the go-ahead run home when he beat a relay throw to avert a double play.

If the rally was a stunning blow to the Orioles, it was almost as big a surprise for the Braves (35-39). Atlanta manager Bobby Cox lifted starting first baseman Julio Franco for a pinch-runner when it was 7-0, hardly an unusual maneuver for a team getting blown out.

“Generally you don’t have a lot of comebacks when you’re down seven runs, but they were hooting and hollering in the dugout to get it going, and they did,” Cox said.

Even after the eventful eighth inning, the Orioles had a chance to tie against Atlanta closer John Smoltz. Miguel Tejada lined a double off the left-field wall to begin the ninth and moved to third on Rafael Palmeiro’s grounder to second. However, Javy Lopez flailed at an outside slider against his former teammate before Smoltz locked up his 13th save when Larry Bigbie grounded out.

The Orioles, who have not won a series since sweeping Detroit on May30, seemed poised to take two of three from the Braves after Riley matched his career-high with seven strikeouts. He also stretched the rotation’s streak of consecutive innings without giving up an earned run to 24 before he surrendered one in the seventh.

The frequent failures of the Orioles’ ineffective staff, which ranks last in the American League in ERA, prompted Saturday’s decision to replace pitching coach Mark Wiley with former manager Ray Miller. Yet the weekend series — which started with rookie Daniel Cabrera recording a shutout on Friday and Rodrigo Lopez following the next day by not allowing an earned run in seven innings of work — permitted some optimism, especially after Riley’s first quality start since April16.

Certainly Miller’s influence already was evident. Riley credited the veteran pitching coach for simplifying his approach even though Miller had been with the team only two days.

“It’s going to come with time,” Riley said. “We’re a young staff, and the more we get out there and go through these experiences, the better off we’re going to be. I felt good out there today.”

The Orioles capitalized on fielding blunders to build their lead while Riley contained the Braves. Second baseman Jesse Garcia tried to get a force at second with one out in the third, but he was charged with an error that led to a paid of unearned runs.

Baltimore scored five more runs off Atlanta starter Jaret Wright in the sixth, a rally fueled by Rafael Furcal’s late throw to first on a routine grounder.

After the bullpen blew the 7-0 lead, the Orioles were left to wonder what else could go wrong. They might find out on a week-long trip that begins tonight in Kansas City before shifting to Philadelphia on Friday.

“What are you going to do, sink in the tank? I’m not,” Mazzilli said. “It happened. You don’t like that it happened, but you have to keep going.”

Notes — David Newhan extended his hitting streak to nine games. He is hitting .448 (13-for-29) since joining the Orioles on June18. … Machado’s double in the fifth was the first extra-base hit this season for an Orioles backup catcher. They are hitting a combined .125 (6-for-48).

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