By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 30, 2005
BALTIMORE, April 29 -- Even a manager whose team possesses first place and a six-game winning streak must find something to worry about, so the Orioles' Lee Mazzilli and his players mused briefly Friday about the team's recent stretch of inactivity.
Would Wednesday's rainout against Boston and Thursday's scheduled off day stall the Orioles' momentum after a 5-0 road trip? Or would the team transition seamlessly into its 12-game homestand?
In one inning, the Orioles delivered the answer. Baltimore scored three runs its first time up and pitcher Erik Bedard dominated for eight scoreless innings to lead the Orioles to a 5-0 trouncing of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in front of 24,910 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The win provided the perfect beginning to a homestand the Orioles described, almost unanimously, as crucial.
Baltimore hasn't occupied first place this late in the season since 1997. And, with 11 more home games looming against teams with a combined record of 38-52, the Orioles have the perfect opportunity, players said, to strengthen that position.
Bedard in particular took advantage. Propelled by a Miguel Tejada three-run homer in the first inning, Bedard went on to retire the Devil Rays' first eight batters, striking out three of them. No Tampa Bay player reached second base in the first five innings and, when Bedard finally faced a jam in the sixth inning, he pitched his best.
With runners on first and second with two outs in the sixth, Bedard fell behind against Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff, three balls and one strike. Bedard then forced two foul balls, throwing as fast as 94 mph, before a full-count breaking ball left Huff standing with the bat on his shoulder and shaking his head.
Bedard, meantime, walked off the mound and pumped his fist, commemorating perhaps the premier highlight in a young season that's been stuffed with them.
"I threw it wherever I wanted," said Bedard, who finished with seven strikeouts and no walks. "I got some quick outs early and I got on a roll."
That roll has lasted for most of Bedard's five starts. He's 2-1 with an earned run average that hovers near 3.00, but those number hardly hint at his dominance. Throw out Bedard's one bad start -- an eight-run disaster in a 13-3 loss to Detroit on April 18 -- and he's the most successful pitcher in the American League. In Bedard's four other starts, he's pitched 26 innings and allowed two runs -- good for a 0.70 ERA.
"I'm not surprised," Mazzilli said. "He was great, but I think he's done this almost all year for us."
On Friday, though, he did something he had never done before: pitch into the eighth inning. Even though he earned a spot in the Orioles' rotation at the beginning of last season, Bedard had never pitched more than seven innings until Friday night, when he threw 111 pitches.
"He was strong all the way through," catcher Javy Lopez said. "It didn't matter if somebody got on base, because you knew the inning would be over soon. With pitching like that, you win."
Especially when it's combined with the type of Orioles power-hitting clinic that's become almost routine. Entering Friday night's game, the hot-hitting Orioles led the American League in batting average (.303), slugging percentage (.489) and runs scored (125) -- numbers that improved Friday. Brian Roberts, one of the league leaders in almost every offensive category, had three hits; Tejada, Jay Gibbons and Lopez all hit home runs to saddle Hideo Nomo (2-3) with the loss.
After each home run, the Orioles greeted the hitter at the top of the dugout almost sheepishly. It's a baseball tradition founded on celebration. But, for the hot-hitting Orioles who have hit 32 home runs, it's become almost mundane.
"We've been winning a lot," Roberts said. "If you get going in the right direction in baseball, you keep going. Every time we walk onto the field right now, we feel like we're going to win."