Whenever Ray Miller speaks of fast-track rookie Sidney Ponson, he mentions the right-hander's "high ceiling." Whenever he looks at the back half of his bullpen, the Orioles manager hits the roof.
Miller got a glimpse of both last night and received the predictable outcome. Ponson struggled early but pushed through 5 2/3 innings against the Boston Red Sox. The bullpen then followed, allowing five hits and four runs while getting seven excruciating outs in a distorted 9-1 loss before 33,104 at Fenway Park.
The loss ended the Orioles' three-game winning streak, dropping them to 28-31 entering tonight's first game of the interleague series with the National League-leading Atlanta Braves. The Orioles are a far different team from the 42-19 dynamo that swept the Braves in Atlanta last June. A makeshift starting rotation now features rookies and journeymen. The bullpen, which has converted 14 of 23 save chances while compiling a 5.44 ERA, is shapeless on many nights.
Last night was one of those nights.
Trailing 3-0 with two out in the sixth, Ponson (0-3) allowed a two-run homer to center fielder Darren Lewis. The sliced shot curled just inside the right-field foul pole, barely 320 feet away.
The Orioles drew within 5-1 on B. J. Surhoff's ninth home run in the seventh inning. From there, Norm Charlton, Richie Lewis and Bobby Munoz couldn't contain the game after Orioles hitters found themselves frustrated for seven innings by Red Sox starter Bret Saberhagen (7-3). Pitching with a reconstructed right shoulder, Saberhagen surrendered seven hits allowed only one runner to third base before Surhoff's homer.
"My dad told me 40 years ago never shave when you're mad. I should've learned that," said Miller, brandishing a razor cut on his lip.
The Orioles enter the weekend series having allowed 45 runs in their last six games, including the 3-0 win on Wednesday.
Because of his bullpen's make-up, Miller can ill afford to use his front line when trailing by several runs. He rations Alan Mills, Arthur Rhodes, Armando Benitez and Jesse Orosco while waiting for the rest of the bullpen to show something.
Said Miller: "We rested some key people tonight so you can put them in the right situation. Would we like to get better? Yes."
Out of the bullpen, Charlton, Munoz, Lewis and Terry Mathews are a combined 1-2 with a 8.66 ERA. Doug Johns and Ponson were promoted from Triple-A Rochester as relievers but now find themselves starting. The ripple effect has been traumatic.
"Tonight I didn't have Rhodes and Mathews. Mills was kind of stiff last night. Obviously, Jesse and Benitez have thrown three days in a row and we've got a big series coming up," Miller explained. "You try to look at the positive side. You saw a good young kid and we gave the four main relievers the night off."
Ponson trailed after four hitters. He surrendered a first-inning run on Reggie Jefferson's one-out double and Mo Vaughn's two-out single.
Ponson, 21, narrowly escaped the second inning after allowing two more runs resulting from a leadoff walk of catcher Scott Hatteberg and an error by second baseman Roberto Alomar.
After his unsteady start, Ponson kept his end of a bargain with Miller. In return for opportunities, he refuses to nibble at the strike zone. His ability to change speeds and throw strikes has ingratiated Ponson to a manager long impatient with a staff-wide reluctance to pitch ahead. Ponson walked two while striking out three.
"It looked like maybe [Ponson] was trying to be perfect. He was trying to pitch to corners," said Miller. "After two innings we told him, 'You've got good stuff. Be aggressive. When you get ahead go ahead and do that stuff.' So he went back out and started throwing the way he wanted to throw and stepped up a little bit. He's got a high ceiling. How far up it is I don't know. That was a good experience for him."
Ponson, injured for much of last season while at Double-A Bowie, recognizes he has much to learn. In the last two weeks he has started, pitched in middle relief and closed. A little stability would be nice.
"I've done a little bit of everything, which is OK. I enjoy starting. It's what I was doing before I came up here. But when they get couple guys back I'm sure I'll be going back to long relief. Then I know I'll have a consistent role, which is good," he said.
The Orioles' hitters were as ineffective against Saberhagen as their bullpen was against the Red Sox hitters. They never threatened Saberhagen (7-3), who won for the second time since a 5-0 start disintegrated into 5-3. Saberhagen had allowed 20 earned runs in 16 2/3 innings covering his previous four starts but had little trouble muffling a lineup that has not been shut out for its last 125 games.
"He doesn't throw as hard as he used to. I haven't seen him since 1990," said right fielder Joe Carter, who scratched a single off Saberhagen in the fourth inning. "I remember a time when he threw 95, 96. That was unfair. But he still has four pitches he can throw for strikes. When he gets you in a pitcher's count, it's tough because he's willing to throw any of them."
Trailing 3-0, the Orioles had their best shot at Saberhagen in the sixth ining but failed to push the threat.
Jeff Reboulet, starting for a second straight game at shortstop in place of the injured Mike Bordick, doubled and took third on Brady Anderson's second single. But just as quickly the inning fizzled when Carter struck out, Harold Baines popped to shallow center and Palmeiro flied out.
"He makes big pitches when he's behind. That's why he's a good pitcher," Miller said of Saberhagen.
Opponent: Atlanta Braves
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Braves' Denny Neagle (7-2, 3.01) vs. O's Scott Erickson (5-6, 5.05) Tickets: 1,500 remain
Pub Date: 6/05/98