It does Scott Erickson no good to think about what might have been, nor does it do the Baltimore Orioles any good. But sometime tonight during Erickson's masterful shutout in a 2-0 win over the Minnesota Twins, the thought must have crossed someone's mind that if Erickson had been this good in April and May, this win might have meant more than just personal pride.
By every indication -- the growing pile of broken bats, the steady stream of ground ball outs, the quick pace of the game -- Erickson's climb out of his giant hole is almost complete. But it has come too late to save the Orioles' season.
"Once I got in the hole, I told myself I wanted to get 10 wins before I got to 10 losses," said Erickson (9-10). "If I had had a little luck in Cleveland [last week in a 6-3 loss], I could have done it. But hopefully I'll just keep pitching well and maybe get 13 or 14 wins out of this mess."
Locked in a duel with Twins starter LaTroy Hawkins (8-10), Erickson delivered his best game of the season. He worked quickly and efficiently, never needing more than 17 pitches to complete an inning. He didn't walk a batter until there were two outs in the ninth, and faced only three other three-ball counts. Only two of his 27 outs were in the air, and only one of those reached the outfield.
Erickson's toughest inning was his last inning, when a single and a walk brought the go-ahead run to the plate. Manager Ray Miller went to the mound, intending to give Erickson one more batter, and Erickson got Marty Cordova to hit into a force out.
"It was the best I've seen him throw this year," said Miller, who has referred to Erickson as a "tough read" during this frustrating season. "He hasn't had that sinker biting like he did tonight."
While Erickson's success stemmed simply from getting ahead in the count and throwing his sinker for strikes, Hawkins's success against the Orioles was a bit of a mystery.
"He was throwing a `new' pitch tonight," Miller said with a knowing smile. One Orioles player later voiced what Miller would only imply: Hawkins was loading the ball.
"The ball," the player said, "was doing unnatural things."
Before tonight's complete game -- his first in almost four years -- Hawkins was a fairly undistinguished pitcher with a 6.98 earned run average. Opposing batters were hitting .330 off Hawkins this year, including a staggering .355 mark by right-handers. And, he was coming off a nine-run spanking in his previous outing.
But Hawkins retired the first 11 batters he faced and pitched around a two-out walk in the fourth. It wasn't until the top of the fifth, when Harold Baines walked and Jeff Conine drove him in with a rocket into the left-center gap, that Hawkins began to look mortal. Delino DeShields followed Conine's double with an RBI single to center, giving Erickson and the Orioles a 2-0 lead.
Scoring Baines from first base on a double, as Conine said tonight, "Ain't easy." But since the Twins were shading Conine toward right-center, third-base coach Sam Perlozzo was able to track the ball and wave Baines home.
"When a guy is pitching well and you're not scoring any runs," Miller said, "sometimes you have to take a chance."
Hawkins pitched out of trouble in the seventh -- striking out Charles Johnson to end the inning with runners on first and second -- and again in the eighth, when Mike Bordick doubled with two outs but was stranded when B.J. Surhoff grounded out.
Before the ninth, Erickson allowed only one other runner into scoring position. That came in the sixth, when Doug Mientkiewicz doubled with one out and moved to third on Jacque Jones's groundout. But Erickson got Cristian Guzman to tap back to the mound to end the inning.
Erickson once was lost, but now he's found. In his last 14 starts, Erickson is 8-2 with a 4.20 ERA. The differences, if any, are slight. He is throwing more fastballs now. He is working to slow down his delivery.
"I'm just throwing strikes,"he said. "I had a bad start, I've made the corrections and hopefully I'll continue to do it the rest of the season."