Slumping O's Exhale After A Needed Win

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By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 3, 2005

BALTIMORE, July 2 -- They described the win as crucial, but the Baltimore Orioles' reaction Saturday afternoon hardly hinted at excitement. Instead of loud locker room music, laughter or celebration, Baltimore players spoke in the hushed tones of relief.

The Orioles beat the Cleveland Indians, 4-0, in a game that was significant because of what the Orioles avoided, not what they achieved.

On a day when a slumping Sammy Sosa was left out of the lineup and the Orioles again seemed headed for disaster, they managed to escape with a win in front of 38,059 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Daniel Cabrera pitched seven scoreless innings and Jay Gibbons hit a three-run homer to help the Orioles win for just the second time in their last 10 games.

"The way we were headed, we'll take any win we can get," Gibbons said. "At this point, we just need good things to happen. Everybody seems to be slumping a little bit. We're not hitting like we know we can. We just needed a win, any win."

Cabrera (6-7) happily served as the Orioles' panacea. Relying mainly on a fastball that often reached 99 mph, Cabrera struck out five and allowed only four hits. Between the second and seventh innings, he retired 16 of the 18 batters he faced. In the fourth inning, he struck out three in a row -- with third-strike fastballs registering at 99, 98 and 98 mph, respectively.

"Everything felt fast and everything felt good," Cabrera said.

But until Gibbons drove in Eli Marrero and Rafael Palmeiro with his sixth-inning home run off Kevin Millwood (3-6), the Orioles failed to capitalize on Cabrera's dominance. In the first five innings, eight Baltimore hitters batted with a runner in scoring position; none hit the ball out of the infield.

"We scored some runs, so that's good," Manager Lee Mazzilli said, "but we had a lot of opportunities, and maybe we should have had more runs."

Five Orioles starters went without a hit: Larry Bigbie, Palmeiro, Marrero, Chris Gomez and David Newhan. Melvin Mora sat out his 10th consecutive game because of a strained right hamstring. Sosa watched the game from the dugout because of a slump that's lasted almost a month.

Based on productivity, one could argue that the Orioles have gone without Sosa for a long time. But for the first time during his slump, he was held out of the lineup.

Sosa, who has one hit in his last 34 at-bats, met for 35 minutes behind closed doors with Mazzilli and Vice President of Baseball Operations Mike Flanagan two hours before Saturday's game. When the meeting ended, the Orioles posted a batting order excluding the team's most famous slugger.

"I get a day off, two days off, three days off -- whatever it takes," Sosa said. Mazzilli "wants me to relax. I'm not the only one who has been there. All the good players get into a tough situation, but I'll be all right."

Sosa is batting .213 since June 4, but his hitting struggles became especially worrisome during the past week. A legendary power hitter, Sosa hasn't hit a ball out of the infield since Monday night. He's hitless in his last 15 at-bats and, on Friday, Orioles' fans booed him heartily each time he came to the plate.

A day after he was booed, Sosa seemed battered by the abuse. He bristled when asked if it bothered him to be benched ("It's one day. What's the big deal?") or to be booed ("I don't worry about the crowd."). His only focus, he said, is to shake out of a slump.

"Sometimes you need to maybe step back and clear your mind about a lot of things," Mazzilli said. "We'll rest him for a day and see where we're at [today].

"That's the hard part as a manager: You've got to decide when to give a guy a rest and how to get him going. Rest is important. Sometimes, I think less is actually more."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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