'Closer' Ponson begins, 2-1 Miller hands rookie job; 4-pitch save caps O's 2nd win in row; 'I was nervous as can be'; Benitez may set up; hit by Baines in 9th tops A's

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Ray Miller hadn't told anyone about his surprise. Not pitching coach Mike Flanagan. Not his bullpen. And least of all rookie Sidney Ponson.

Tired of watching one late-inning loss after another, the Orioles manager turned to Ponson yesterday as the reluctant closer in what ended as a 2-1 decision over the Oakland Athletics at Oakland Coliseum. If desperate times demand desperate measures, yesterday's "statement" by Miller confirmed the Orioles' position.

Four days after Armando Benitez received an eight-game suspension and 21 days since his bullpen had closed its last save, Miller asked Ponson to get the final two outs of a nerve-racking afternoon. The Aruban 21-year-old answered in four pitches.

"I'm not expecting that from them," Ponson said. "I came over to pitch out of the bullpen in long relief. I really don't know my role. But I'll go out there and pitch anytime in the game."

Pinch hitter Harold Baines broke open a pitcher's duel that began with Doug Johns and Kenny Rogers before spilling into the bullpen. Baines ripped a one-out double off reliever Billy Taylor that scored Jeff Reboulet from second, giving the Orioles' professional hit man 22 RBIs in only 117 at-bats.

For the first time since May 9, the 22-27 Orioles have won consecutive games and also won their first series in two weeks.

Making his most assertive statement this season, Miller said he will give Ponson a legitimate shot at wresting the role away from the suspended and out-of-favor Benitez.

"I'm looking for someone to take charge. If he can take charge of it, he can do it," Miller said. "When Armando comes back, maybe he can jump into the role he was in last year. Then we have two young guys with that capability."

If Miller was nervous about what was happening, Ponson was terrified.

"Just play catch," Miller said, trying to calm the rookie making only his 10th major-league appearance -- all this season.

"I had no clue this was going to happen," said Ponson. "I was

nervous as someone can be out there."

Ponson admitted shaking when called upon to face shortstop Kurt Abbott. Abbott did him a favor by grounding his first pitch to shortstop for the second out. With Norm Charlton ready, Miller then allowed Ponson to face switch-hitter Scott Spiezio. After pushing the count to 1-1, Spiezio grounded down the first base line to Rafael Palmeiro, who flipped to Ponson covering.

"There are two things that can happen to a closer: You can get a save or get a loss. That's the way I look at it," said Ponson.

Benitez, eligible to return from his eight-game suspension May 29, hasn't saved a game since May 1. Ponson's save was the Orioles' first since May 3. The ensuing three weeks brought them a 5-13 record before yesterday. In the previous 15 games, the bullpen blew all five save chances while compiling a 6.96 ERA. Not surprisingly, the Orioles had lost eight consecutive one-run decisions since April 14.

In the past week, Miller has raised his calm veneer while lowering his verbal hammer. He labeled Benitez as "cowardly" for inciting Tuesday's brawl in New York and ripped into his pitching staff Friday for not pitching ahead. The staff responded with consecutive walk-free games.

"Inside you get very solid with what you've got to do. If it doesn't work, you live with it," Miller said.

Miller had convinced himself of the move before yesterday's game, but Jesse Orosco (1-0) gave a powerful argument to reconsider.

A week after suffering his second blown save, Orosco struck out three of four batters he faced.

"When [Orosco] struck the first guy out, I wavered for a second," Miller said. "Then I thought if that's what I was thinking about doing, if that's what you believe you should do, then do it. Because you'll never sleep. There've been two days when I've had trouble sleeping. And that's because [of changing your mind] and it don't work," Miller said.

Still, this season refuses to let the Orioles rest easy. Just as Doug Drabek finds his first complete game in almost two years and Johns makes a gutty seven-inning, one-run performance, they received crushing news about Jimmy Key. Suggestions of shoulder problems are the worst possible news for their leading left-hander, who underwent the most recent of four surgeries on the area on July 5, 1995.

While the Orioles were caught in a tie game, Key was headed back to Baltimore to be examined by team orthopedic doctor Michael Jacobs today.

For now, Drabek is the No. 2 starter and Johns is assured of at least two more turns. Only 10 days ago, Johns remained on the disabled list, fighting for more than three hours of sleep a night.

Johns, an A's draft pick in 1990 and a member of their staff in 1995-96, made his third start of the season. On Tuesday, his first appearance since going on the disabled list, Johns staked the Orioles to a 5-1 lead against the New York Yankees that the bullpen squandered.

Yesterday Johns threw 88 pitches, including 62 strikes. Palmeiro's 11th home run represented his only offensive support.

Meanwhile, the A's reached him for a second-inning run when Mike Blowers reached on a roller to third base, took third on Abbott's one-out double and scored on Spiezio's grounder.

A chance to beat a tiring Rogers in the eighth inning came apart like so many others. An unwillingness to advance runners combined with indecisive base running to sabotage a rally.

Jeffrey Hammonds topped a three-hit game with a leadoff line drive that a retreating Rickey Henderson gloved but could not hold. Scored a double, the drive gave Hammonds seven hits for the series, three for extra bases.

Miller then faced the game's pivotal move: ask Joe Carter to sacrifice, something foreign to a player with 381 career home runs; summon Reboulet to pinch bunt; or turn Carter loose as he did in New York on Thursday against Andy Pettitte. Presented a first-and-second situation with none out in the eighth inning of a tie game, Carter popped to second base. The Orioles failed to score and eventually lost, 3-1.

Miller at least proved consistent.

Carter quickly fell behind Rogers 0-2 before grounding sharply to the mound. Rogers knocked the ball down and found Hammonds in no man's land. After hesitating, Hammonds took off for third base and was easily beaten.

Carter tried to restore the threat by stealing his first base of the season and taking third on Palmeiro's fly ball to right field. Eric Davis stranded him with a grounder to the mound.

The failure cost Johns his deserved decision, but brought the stage to Baines in the ninth. After a walk to Cal Ripken, Miller used Reboulet to pinch run. B. J. Surhoff then sacrificed Reboulet to second, bringing up Baines to pinch hit for catcher Lenny Webster. Facing side-wheeling reliever Taylor, Baines crushed a drive to center field that scored Reboulet.

"Last night my hit didn't mean that much," Baines said of Saturday's two-run double to cap a 9-1 win. "This was a big hit in a big situation. You like those."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Seattle Mariners

Site: Kingdome, Seattle

Time: 9: 05

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: O's Nerio Rodriguez (0-1, 9.00) vs. Mariners' Bill Swift (2-3, 6.38)

Key to go on DL

The Orioles sent pitcher Jimmy Key home yesterday to have his stiff left shoulder evaluated. Key, who has had four shoulder surgeries, will be put on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Thursday. Nerio Rodriguez was recalled. (Story, 6D)

Series-ous trouble

The Orioles' victory yesterday gained their first series win since May 10 and only their third series win since April 14. A look:

Date Opp, Series

4-14/16 Chicago, Lost, 2-1

4-17/19 at Texas, Lost, 2-1

4-20/22 at Anaheim, Lost, 2-1

4-24/26 Oakland, Lost, 2-1

4-27/28 Anaheim, Lost, 2-0

4-29/30 at Chicago, Tied, 1-1

5-1/3 Minnesota, Won, 2-1

5-5/6 at Cleveland, Lost, 2-0

5-8/10 at Tampa Bay, Won, 2-1

5-11/12 at Minnesota, Tied, 1-1

5-13/14 Cleveland, Tied, 1-1

5-15/18 Tampa Bay, Lost, 4-0

5-19/21 at New York, Lost, 3-0

5-22/24 at Oakland, Won, 2-1

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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