- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

They came, not in gigantic numbers but with a good amount of passion, to witness the birth a rivalry. And when the first “Battle of the Beltways” ballgame was over, the crowd of 30,320 at RFK Stadium came to realize what many fans in Washington and Baltimore already knew.

The Orioles are slightly less worse than the Nationals.

That’s about all that could be deduced from Baltimore’s 5-1 victory on an unseasonably chilly evening in the District. Neither of the struggling clubs look ready to compete for a pennant any time soon. But perhaps the Orioles (20-22) are closer to realizing success than their counterparts 35 miles down the road.

In time, the Nationals (14-28) may surpass their geographic rivals, but certainly not until their new owners have had a chance to rebuild this organization from the ground up. Mark Lerner, one of the bosses who will take over this summer, was among those in attendance. He couldn’t have liked what he saw.

A Washington team that has been spiraling downward for the last month continued the trend, nearly getting shut out for the third time in four days. The Nationals committed two errors and a couple more defensive blunders en route to their seventh loss in nine games.

And it wasn’t like the Orioles put on a clinic in fundamentally sound baseball. Baltimore got a complete-game, five-hitter from right-hander Kris Benson, but he was aided by the Nationals’ long-standing offensive ineptitude.

“It’s not tonight. It’s been this way most of the season,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It’s not what the pitcher’s doing. It’s what we’re not doing.”

Ultimately, the orange and black portion of the bipartisan crowd had more to cheer about than their red and blue counterparts. The only real loud outbursts from Washington fans were the boos directed at those who yelled “O!” during the national anthem and at Nationals reliever Felix Rodriguez, who turned a close 2-0 game into a semi-rout with 11/3 sub-par innings out of the bullpen.

“Well, I didn’t think it was electric,” Baltimore manager Sam Perlozzo said of the scene inside RFK. “But it was OK. They had a good crowd. As time goes on, I think it will pick up a little bit. Hopefully, it will, and both teams will be competing for playoffs when we’re doing it.”

It wasn’t quite a playoff atmosphere last night, but it was a good game for six innings, thanks to Mike O’Connor, the rookie left-hander who continues to surprise with his veteran savvy on the mound.

The birth of this rivalry may not have meant anything to most of the players in either dugout, but if there was one guy who could appreciate this, it was O’Connor. The Ellicott City, Md., native grew up a die-hard Orioles fan, idolizing Cal Ripken Jr. and Mike Mussina. And though he rarely shows any excitement, the rookie admitted it was special to be on the mound for this game.

“It was definitely cool to be able to pitch the first game of this … I’m not sure what they’re calling it,” O’Connor said. “It’s definitely something I’ll remember.”

The Expos’ seventh-round pick of the 2002 draft is proving it’s possible to be successful even when pitching on sheer guile. He needed all the competitive fire he could muster last night to escape several early jams.

When the first two Orioles batters reached base in the second inning, O’Connor calmly struck out Kevin Millar, Corey Patterson and Benson — all looking at fastballs. When they again put two on in the fourth and the fifth, the young lefty again pitched his way out of it without surrendering a run (even after getting tagged in the left shoulder by a Jay Gibbons liner).

But he couldn’t keep up that staggering rate of escape all night, and that proved true in the sixth, when Baltimore pushed across a pair of runs to finally break the scoreless deadlock. It wasn’t all O’Connor’s fault, though. Daryle Ward, filling in for an injured Jose Guillen in right field, misplayed Patterson’s line drive over his head into an RBI triple. And when Benson followed with a slow tapper to the right of the mound, O’Connor (2-2) could only get the sure out at first and allow the game’s second run to score.

“I felt like every inning I had two guys on and no outs,” he said. “That’s definitely not how you want to pitch.”

The way Benson (6-3) was cruising along, O’Connor would have needed to be perfect. The veteran right-hander barely broke a sweat in dispatching the Washington lineup, needing only 110 pitches to make it through the night and nearly tossing a shutout until Alfonso Soriano hit a solo home run in the eighth.

That garbage-time homer represented only the 18th hit for the Nationals in their last four games, a stat that finally became too much for Robinson and general manager Jim Bowden to handle. Following the game, they optioned outfielder Ryan Church (batting a measly .215) to Class AA Harrisburg and called up one-time top prospect Alex Escobar to replace him.

But Robinson doesn’t expect one minor roster move to cure all his team’s problems.

“This entire lineup is not doing the job right now offensively,” he said. “It’s hit-and-miss. It’s hit one game here and one game there. And then, it’s shutdown.”

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