BOSTON -- Minimal expectations were easily met by the Orioles last night.
Turning to rookie starter Sidney Ponson to extend a three-game winning streak, they went down meekly to the Boston Red Sox and Bret Saberhagen at Fenway Park. Hammered for 14 hits, they lost 9-1 and returned home for a three-game interleague series with the Atlanta Braves.
The Orioles have won eight of 12 but dropped back to three games below .500. Saberhagen used his bionic shoulder to contain the Orioles on seven hits in seven innings. Ponson held the Red Sox for five innings before the game blew up in the bullpen's hands.
The loss drops the Orioles back to seven games behind Boston, which leads the American League wild-card race.
The Orioles can only hope their pitching improves against the National League's top offense. Despite their recent turnaround, the Orioles have allowed 45 runs in their past six games, including Wednesday's 3-0 win.
Ponson has done it all for the Orioles. He arrived to help in middle relief, was handed the closer's role by manager Ray Miller in Oakland last month and started twice. Last night's 5 2/3 innings were an improvement over an April 29 start against the Chicago White Sox in which he allowed six runs and nine base runners in four innings.
"I've done a little bit of everything, which is OK," said Ponson. "I enjoy starting. It's what I was doing before I came up here. But when they get a 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."
Though still waiting for his first major-league win, Ponson (0-3) at least carried the game far enough to avoid a bullpen meltdown. Norm Charlton relieved and gave a competent performance. Meanwhile, a semblance of order remains for this weekend's three games against the Atlanta Braves.
"We rested some key people tonight," Miller said. "Put them in the right situation. Would we like to get better? Yes."
The 21-year-old rookie's longest outing in 13 major-league appearances saw him trail after four hitters.
Reggie Jefferson doubled off the Green Monster with one out, took third on Nomar Garciaparra's grounder to short then scored on Mo Vaughn's two-out single.
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 he was trying to be perfect," Miller said. "He was trying to pitch to corners. 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."
The Orioles 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 makes big pitches when he's behind. That's why he's a good pitcher," Joe Carter said.
"He doesn't throw as hard as he used to. I haven't seen him since 1990. There was 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."
Brady Anderson led off the game with a single off Vaughn's glove at first base but ran into the game's first out when he tried to stretch the hit into a double.
The Red Sox bumped their lead to 3-0 in the second, thanks to a leadoff walk and a defensive lapse.
Catcher Scott Hatteberg began the inning with a walk and moved to second on Mike Benjamin's single. The inning turned on the right-hander when No. 9 hitter Darren Bragg lined a one-hop grounder to second baseman Roberto Alomar's left. Alomar speared at the ball but deflected it into shallow right field. Hatteberg scored and Benjamin moved to third. Darren Lewis then singled to score the inning's second run.
Ponson allowed nine hits and at least one in every inning but steadied once behind 3-0.
The Orioles had their best shot at getting at Saberhagen in the sixth inning but failed to push the threat. Jeff Reboulet, starting at shortstop in place of the injured Mike Bordick, doubled and took third on 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.
Instead of a quality start, the sixth inning brought Ponson a tough ouster.
With two outs and a runner at first, Ponson could not get past Lewis. The center fielder wrapped a pop fly around the right-field foul pole barely 320 feet away for a 5-0 lead.
The homer came on Ponson's 100th pitch, enough for Miller.
The Orioles averted a shutout in the seventh when left fielder B.J. Surhoff crushed his ninth home run an estimated 424 feet to center field. Surhoff has three homers and seven RBIs in his last eight games while batting .364 (12-for-33).
Once more the second tier of the Orioles' disposable bullpen proved incapable of holding the game.
Charlton was lifted after issuing two-out walks to John Valentin and Hatteberg. Miller summoned Richie Lewis, who immediately surrendered a two-run single to Benjamin to bump the lead to 7-1. He then allowed his own run to score on Bragg's double over Anderson's head in center.
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