By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008
BALTIMORE, Sept. 14 -- Radhamés Liz gave the best performance of his young career on Sunday, pitching eight scoreless innings to lead the Baltimore Orioles to a 7-3 win over the Minnesota Twins, a victory that offered hope the Orioles could at least finish their lost season with some respectability.
"It was a baseball game," Orioles Manager Dave Trembley said.
Over the last month, even the most liberal interpretation of that phrase would not have applied to some of the Orioles' recent efforts. An example came just a day before, when the contending Twins throttled the Orioles in a doubleheader sweep that typified the pitching issues that have derailed Baltimore's season.
The Orioles, outscored 24-8 on Saturday, failed in either game to extract even a few drops of what could be considered authentic major league pitching. But everything changed when Liz, 25, took the mound.
And from the first pitch of the game, a strike to Denard Span, the difference was clear.
As Liz painted his masterpiece, the rest of the Orioles followed suit. Instead of struggling to keep their focus on the field, the Orioles looked alert and excited.
"We got three outs in the first: one-two-three," Trembley said. "For goodness sakes. A zero."
The extra boost showed most at the plate, where the Orioles moved past what seemed like a weeklong parade of warning track outs into a true power display, as Baltimore finished with a season-high five home runs.
Nick Markakis, who came into the game with just one homer in his previous 30 games, hit a two-run homer and a solo shot, ensuring the young star his second straight 20-homer season. Oscar Salazar, a September call-up whose ability to hit rescued him from the fringes of professional baseball, smashed two homers of his own.
After Luke Scott singled to win an 11-pitch battle, Salazar smashed a two-run homer to left to give Baltimore a 4-0 lead in the second inning. Salazar, the journeyman who hopes to factor into the Orioles' future, followed with a solo shot in the fourth, which Lou Montañez turned into back-to-back homers with one of his own.
From the way they jogged off the field to the way they ran the bases, everything about the Orioles appeared different.
"There was more hooting and hollering in the dugout after the top of the first than I've heard in a while," Trembley said.
Ultimately, it was Liz who provided the most excitement.
The right-hander's control problems have contributed to a horrendous season. In two September starts, Liz had allowed 12 earned runs and walked six.
But against a Twins lineup hoping to gain on the Chicago White Sox in the scramble for the AL Central lead, Liz threw first-pitch strikes to 10 of the first 13 batters he faced. Liz demonstrated early on that he could command his fastball, consistently keeping the pitch low in the zone.
And doing so paid great dividends later on, when Liz took advantage of an expanded strike zone that forced the Twins to do more than sit and wait. With Minnesota batters forced to swing earlier in the count, and with borderline calls going his way, the pitcher kept his pitch count low enough to get deep into the game.
"I felt pretty good about that," said Liz, who walked just one. "I knew they were taking pitches to get ahead in the count. I was trying to throw first-pitch strikes and then I could go more to the corners."
The degree to which Liz located his pitches was most evident in the seventh inning. With two strikes against Brian Buscher, Liz spotted a fastball just off the outside corner of the plate.
In most of his starts, the pitch would have been called a ball. But because Liz peppered the strike zone, he earned a called strike three.
Just as he would do an inning later, a relaxed Liz strolled off the field and into the dugout, where his teammates offered congratulatory handshakes for a bona fide major league pitching performance.