Ponson, Rhodes 2-hit Yanks, 2-0 Rookie wins 1st game with dominant 6 2/3 as O's top leaders again; Radar still reads 98 in 7th; N.Y. record-tying series streak is halted

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Young, strong-armed and confident. Sidney Ponson is, in the words of his Orioles manager, "what a prospect is supposed to look like."

Thanks for the reminder.

Last night against a team competing more against history than the rest of its division, Ponson added his first major-league win to the package.

For at least one night before 48,027 at Camden Yards, the 34-36 Orioles were allowed a break from counting their losses to marvel instead at what they have found. Ponson (1-4) conspired with durable reliever Arthur Rhodes for a two-hit, 2-0 win over the New York Yankees and AL ERA leader Hideki Irabu (6-2).

Not only were the Yankees dealt only their second shutout this season, they watched as a chance to break an 86-year-old piece of history vanished with their first series loss since the first week of the season.

Ponson, 21, earned his first major-league win in his 15th appearance, and first Camden Yards start. He did so by pitching 6 2/3 innings, his longest start since last May 17 at Double-A Bowie when he was a sore-armed butterball.

Now more than 25 pounds trimmer, healthy and no longer awed by his surroundings, he represents a find.

Ponson worked twice in the bullpen with pitching coach Mike Flanagan since his last start, a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies' Matt Beech. The six-inning start led Miller to reverse course and leave Ponson in the rotation over left-handed veteran Doug Johns.

"You get to a point where you go with the best arm available," explained manager Ray Miller. "I think it was the intelligent thing to do. If you're not only looking to get ourselves going here but you're looking to the future and high-side potential, you're looking at him."

"Right now, I just want to pitch," says Ponson, who has served as starter, middle reliever and closer already. "It doesn't matter what they want me to do. I'll take whatever role they give me."

Right now that's No. 5 starter.

"I thought he was throwing the ball extremely hard and I didn't know how long that would last," said catcher Lenny Webster, who contributed three hits and a run. "He would miss a few pitches. Sometimes he would miss his location, but he threw so hard it didn't make a difference. I think they were really surprised to see how hard he was throwing. He was really bringing it."

The stadium radar read 98 in the seventh inning, but Miller called for Rhodes following Ponson's only walk and only legitimate hit allowed.

Rhodes grabbed his third save by retiring all seven hitters he faced, striking out three and never allowing a ball out of the infield.

The win left the Orioles 14-9 since May 23 but did little to upset the balance of power within the American League East. The Orioles are 16 1/2 games behind the Yankees. However, combined with Monday's 7-4 win, they did deny the Bronx Bombers a chance at breaking the 86-year-old major-league record for most consecutive series tied or won that they shared with the 1912 Boston Red Sox. The Yankees had not lost a series since a season-opening sweep by the Anaheim Angels.

"I think what affected us most offensively was Ponson," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, his team at 47-16. "You can't take anything away from him. We've been playing well for the most part. We played well on Sunday. It's just that we ran into good pitching. I don't want to say we aren't hitting, because it doesn't sound like they're pitching well. It was tough tonight for sure."

Ponson, likened by Miller to a young Steve Avery and Dennis Martinez, had surrendered 62 base runners in 37 2/3 innings before last night. The reason could be traced to his being an organizational rarity, a prospect bold enough to throw strikes upon reaching the major leagues.

"We really liked what we saw in Philadelphia," said Miller, a huge advocate of Ponson's since spring training. "I really have to take my hat off to him and Mike Flanagan, who have done probably 30 hours of sidelines, mental and physical, in the last week to 10 days."

Ponson mostly abandoned his four-seam fastball for a two-seamer, helping him to keep the ball down. He became more comfortable with a slider. The hard combination made his best pitch, a changeup, even more effective.

"He just didn't give us many opportunities. He threw hard and he threw strikes. It's pretty simple why he was effective," said Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius.

The Orioles converted a threat against Irabu with two outs in the fifth. Webster and Mike Bordick led off with singles. Bordick's came after he faked a bunt, pulled back and looped an opposite-field hit that advanced the runner to second base.

The rally nearly fizzled when Brady Anderson fouled to first on a 2-0 pitch and Joe Carter flied out to shallow center field. It then fell to designated hitter Harold Baines -- a .365 hitter with runners in scoring position -- who drilled a single through the legs of second base umpire Tim McClelland into center field, scoring Webster.

Having given the Yankees their only hit at the time, Alomar gave Ponson another run when he led off the sixth with his seventh home run to right-center field.

Only a scorer's judgment prevented the rookie from dancing with history. With two outs in the third inning, Luis Sojo grounded to the right of second base. Alomar ranged to his right, extended, gloved the ball and then watched it bounce away. The All-Star makes tougher plays routinely but the grounder was immediately scored a hit.

Sojo remained the Yankees' only base runner through six innings as Ponson needed only 76 pitches to reach the seventh. The better measure of his command was that he didn't have to rely on strikeouts.

"With most kids his age you have to talk them into throwing more DTC strikes," Flanagan said. "With him, you have to talk him into throwing fewer."

Having pitched a total of 15 2/3 innings in his first three starts, Ponson appeared to hit a wall in the seventh.

After trailing designated hitter Tim Raines 2-0, Ponson rallied for his fourth strikeout. Paul O'Neill then flied out to left. But then Ponson went to a full count against Tino Martinez. The veteran hitter toyed with Ponson, calling for time, and Ponson issued his only walk of the game. Catcher Jorge Posada then crushed a fastball past first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. What looked to be a certain RBI double was reduced to an infield single when the shot ricocheted off first base umpire Mike Reilly.

Booed loudly for it, Miller then made a tough but appropriate decision.

When Ponson started Chad Curtis with two balls, Miller replaced him with left-hander Rhodes, the league leader in relief innings. Rhodes validated the decision by striking out Curtis on three pitches, then pitching a perfect eighth and ninth.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: New York Yankees

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7: 35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Yankees' Andy Pettitte (7-5, 4.27) vs. O's Mike Mussina (5-3, 3.60)

Tickets: Fewer than 400 remain

Pub Date: 6/17/98

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