While all around him the Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation is in late-season flux -- injured aces, reined-in young players, journeymen fill-ins, debutant phenoms -- Scott Erickson still plows forward every five days, quietly constructing a solid season on top of the ruins of April and May.
A three-hit shutout tonight in a 5-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins put Erickson's record (12-11) above the .500 mark for the first time this season. Since June 19, Erickson is 11-3 with a 3.81 earned run average, which has salvaged respectability, but has not completely wiped away the bitter taste of a 1-8 start.
"I busted my tail to come back, and it paid off," Erickson said. "But it's a team sport and the goal is the playoffs, and we're not even close. If I could've started off where I am now, I could've had a good year. I'm just frustrated I wasted the first two months."
Still, with ace Mike Mussina out at least another week, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson showing signs of arm-weariness, and veterans Doug Linton and Doug Johns acting as short-term solutions, Erickson has become the most consistent starter over the last month.
Erickson has pitched into at least the seventh inning in seven consecutive starts, providing a welcome respite for a bullpen that has been covering a dangerously high number of innings lately. Erickson's three shutouts lead the American League.
"He has five more starts and a chance to win five more," said Manager Ray Miller. "17-11 would be a heck of a year after his start."
Tonight, Erickson appeared to grow stronger as the game progressed, struggling with his command early on -- he fell behind either 2-0 or 3-1 to three of his first six hitters, and needed 25 pitches to escape the second inning unscarred -- but breezing through the middle and late innings. Nineteen outs came on ground balls.
After Doug Mientkiewicz's single put runners on first and third with two outs in the second, Erickson retired the next 13 batters. Terry Steinbach drew a walk to lead off the seventh, but he was quickly erased by a double-play grounder off the bat of Todd Walker -- the league-leading 34th double play induced by Erickson.
Erickson did not allow a hit after the second inning, but through the first six innings, he was making do with one run of support, on Albert Belle's homer in the fourth, his 33rd of the season. With an announced crowd of only 9,263 in the cavernous Metrodome, Belle's blast sounded like a pistol retort.
The Orioles finally broke open the game in the seventh, chasing starter Joe Mays (5-8) with six straight singles, leading to four runs. Cal Ripken started the avalanche with a single to left, drawing to within 27 of the 3,000-hit mark.
Rookie second baseman Jerry Hairston drove in the first run with a single up the middle at the end of an impressive 10-pitch at-bat, in which he fouled off six pitches. Hairston, continuing to make his case as the Orioles' second baseman of the future, went 3 for 3 with a double and a walk, raising his season average to .286. He also made a handful of tough plays in the field.
"I'm trying to learn, and hopefully I'll be here" next Opening Day, Hairston said. "Of course that's the goal. But I've learned in my short time here that I can't worry about stuff like that."
Hairston's impressive game came on the same night the Orioles disclosed that incumbent second baseman Delino DeShields remained in Baltimore to be examined by a doctor in hopes of determining the source of a mysterious quadriceps injury that has taken away his explosive first step.
"Hairston had a couple of really outstanding at-bats," Miller said. "With Delino having problems, it gives him a chance to play some more. He's going to open some eyes."
Orioles Notes: Reliever Arthur Rhodes (bruised finger) also remained in Baltimore today to see a hand specialist. . . .
Mussina (bruised right shoulder) threw for about eight minutes in the bullpen today and remains penciled in to start Sept. 14 against Oakland. . . .
Rochester Manager Dave Machemer, who joined the Orioles here after the Red Wings' season ended on Monday, likely will not manage the Orioles' Class AAA affiliate again next season, General Manager Frank Wren said today, but would be re-assigned somewhere else in the organization.