There are many places and many dates where one could begin the story of the 1999 Baltimore Orioles' downfall. But Tropicana Field, April 20-22, is as good a starting place as any. It was here and then that a series of calamities sent the Orioles' season into a tailspin that continued tonight.
The Orioles returned here, four long months later, and the only thing that has changed is that the Orioles no longer harbor dreams of turning around their season. If tonight's painful 10-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays seemed more sad than upsetting, it is because wins and losses no longer carry as much meaning.
Former Devil Rays prospect Jason Johnson (3-6), needing a heroic effort to cover for the Orioles' critically depleted bullpen, instead was rocked for nine runs over four-plus innings.
"I made some good pitches; they weren't called," said Johnson, referring to the strike zone of umpire Durwood Merrill. "I couldn't find his zone. I threw high strikes, low strikes, and they were called balls. What can I do? I threw it down the middle and let them hit it, and they did."
That Manager Ray Miller was forced to leave Johnson in the game for a brutal beating was the result of Sunday's costly 5-2, 11-inning loss to Detroit, in which the Orioles used seven pitchers.
"I was hoping to get him at least through the fifth," Miller said. "I don't know if it was because he's facing his former club, but he wasn't nearly as sharp as he has been."
By the fifth inning, when the Devil Rays batted around for the second time in the game to take a 10-3 lead, the game appeared headed toward a mound appearance by utility infielder Jeff Reboulet.
However, Harold Baines's two-run homer in the sixth and a rally in the eighth -- keyed by singles by Rich Amaral, Brady Anderson, Mike Bordick and Albert Belle -- pulled the Orioles within two and put the potential winning runs on base. But former Oriole Esteban Yan struck out Jeff Conine on five straight change-ups with the bases loaded to end the inning.
The Orioles cut the lead to one in the ninth on Anderson's RBI forceout, but after stealing second Anderson was stranded there when Bordick's slicing liner was caught by center fielder Terrell Lowery.
"We got awfully close," Miller said. "But it was just too many runs to overcome."
The slow, aging, sore-legged Orioles are particularly vulnerable on artificial turf. Tonight's loss dropped them to 3-13 on turf, including 0-4 here, and revived memories of that season-defining three-game series here four months before, when the Orioles arrived in St. Petersburg a 3-9 puzzle, and departed a 3-12 embarrassment.
During those three disastrous nights in April, the Orioles placed Cal Ripken and Will Clark on the disabled list, were nearly no-hit by Tony Saunders and got swept by the second-year Devil Rays without so much as taking a lead. In addition, Mike Mussina suffered perhaps the worst beating of his career in a nationally televised 14-8 loss, and a frustrated Belle threw a beer bottle through a television set.
Even though Ripken and Clark eventually returned, Mussina rebounded from the pounding to win a berth on the all-star team and Belle finally began to produce at the plate, the Orioles never recovered.
Johnson wasn't with the Orioles in April; he was still in Class AAA Rochester. And his emergence over the past three months had been one of the few positive developments for the Orioles this season.
Four of Johnson's previous seven starts had lasted seven innings, and he had a 3.80 earned run average over that stretch. But tonight, facing his former teammates, Johnson got pummeled. His downfall began in the second inning, when he surrendered six consecutive one-out hits (two of which never left the infield), capped by a two-run double by Tony Graffanino that gave Tampa Bay a 5-0 lead.
After the Orioles came back with three runs in the top of the third -- on Bordick's two-run triple and B.J. Surhoff's RBI single -- Johnson gave up a sixth run in the bottom of the inning on a broken-bat RBI single by Bobby Smith.
Because of the dicey bullpen situation, Miller needed Johnson to stay in the game, but after Johnson opened the fifth by giving up a single to John Flaherty and a homer to Paul Sorrento, then plunked Jose Guillen, Miller had little choice but to pull him.
Johnson "struggled to get anything over the plate but fastballs," Miller said, "and this is a good fastball-hitting club."