They were alone in third place, a game closer in the wild-card race and showing signs of tearing away from the clutches of mediocrity. But as the Orioles keep finding this season, a few steps forward inevitably bring a stumble.
They lost their footing again yesterday, along with a chance to put together a winning streak with substance. The Toronto Blue Jays hit three home runs off rookie Sidney Ponson and another off reliever Armando Benitez, and salvaged a split of this four-game series with a 7-3 win before a sellout crowd of 47,522 at Camden Yards.
Ponson (1-5) wasn't able to record an out in the sixth inning
before manager Ray Miller went to his bullpen. One of the homers off him, by Carlos Delgado leading off the sixth, was the third ball to land on Eutaw Street this season and the 18th in the seven-year history of Oriole Park. Ponson has served up two of them.
Shawn Green took him deep in the first inning and Ed Sprague hit a two-run shot in the second for a 3-0 lead. Sprague also drove a two-strike pitch from Benitez over the left-field fence in the ninth inning.
Harold Baines hit his fifth homer, Brady Anderson and Mike Bordick each knocked in a run and left-hander Arthur Rhodes turned in three more scoreless innings. But the Orioles (36-39) failed to build on victories the past two nights and fell back into a third-place tie with the Blue Jays. They haven't won three in a row since June 1-3, running in place as the Boston Red Sox put 9 1/2 games between themselves and the Orioles for the wild card.
"For the most part, that's because of depth in the pitching," Miller said of his club's inability to get rolling. "I'm beating a dead horse, but when a starter gets into the sixth, we usually do real well. That's probably true of everybody. It just takes all cylinders working."
How else to plow through the wall that stands between the Orioles and the .500 mark?
"It's been that way ever since I've been in baseball," Miller said. "It's hard to get to it, and you usually get popped in the jaw a couple times. But once you get over it, you start kicking."
The Orioles booted enough scoring opportunities yesterday, putting runners on base in every inning and stranding 10.
Baines homered in the third, giving him 10 hits in the series, and Anderson reduced the Blue Jays' lead to 3-2 in the fourth by scoring Bordick with a two-out double. It was Anderson's fifth hit in seven at-bats, including three doubles.
Bordick lined a two-out single to right in the sixth to score Cal Ripken, who had reached after striking out when the ball got by catcher Darrin Fletcher. The Orioles kept Toronto starter Pat Hentgen (8-4) and reliever Paul Quantrill on the ropes, but were undone either by their inability to deliver in the clutch or hitting into tough luck.
Outfielder Rich Becker, making his first start as an Oriole, lined into a double play to end the third inning. And Jose Canseco made a sliding catch of a sinking liner to left by Roberto Alomar in the fifth, then fired to first base to double off Baines.
The Orioles' last threat, when Joe Carter doubled with two outs in the ninth and Baines walked, ended when Randy Myers entered and got Rafael Palmeiro to hit into a force for his 19th save. Palmeiro had homered off him in Toronto.
"They made the right pitches when they had to, and they made some great plays, too," said Alomar, who extended his hitting streak to seven games with a third-inning single.
As for the Orioles' failure to put together a lengthy winning streak, Alomar said: "We cannot worry about that. We have to come here and play every day, and so far we've been playing better baseball. I'll take two out of four. It could be worse. It could be one out of four.
"We're hitting better, we're pitching better, we're playing some good defense. If we continue to play this way, we've got a chance to win some games."
Ponson's chance went flying out of Camden Yards. Making his fifth major-league start, he lacked the command that enabled him to shut out the New York Yankees on two hits over 6 2/3 innings Tuesday night. The Blue Jays reached him for five earned runs and nine hits.
"Sidney threw OK. The location wasn't quite as good," Miller said. "He was throwing 98 [mph] early and dropped to 95 later. It was supposed to be a fastball away to Sprague, and it ran right back to the middle of the plate. Green, he had 0-2 and tried to place a couple pitches and got behind, overthrew a fastball and he hit it out of the park. It's just experience. They don't hit the ball any harder here than in the minor leagues, but they hit mistakes a lot more frequently. This kid has outstanding stuff."
Ponson has given up 12 homers in 49 1/3 innings, third on the team and just two behind leader Doug Drabek in 21 2/3 fewer innings. But he had been strong in his past two starts, including June 9 in Philadelphia, when he limited the Phillies to two runs in six innings but still took the loss.
"Right now, I'm just trying to help this club win ballgames," Ponson said. "I go out there and give all I can, but it wasn't #F enough today, so I'm just going to work on the side and see what happens.
"If I could throw a pitch at the right time, I could get them out, but I threw some down the middle of the plate and they hit them out. I didn't execute the game plan today."
4( And the Orioles didn't move forward.
Opponent: New York Mets
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mets' Bobby Jones (6-3, 3.67) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (5-4, 3.95)
% Tickets: 3,900 remain
Pub Date: 6/22/98