DETROIT -- Sidney Ponson remains at a loss to explain the condition. The Orioles rookie struggles through the first inning, sometimes burying himself beneath a pile of hits and lacking control, then emerges with a veteran's poise.
It happened again last night against the Detroit Tigers. This time an invigorated offense and a bulletproof bullpen rewarded him for a dramatic stand.
The rookie right-hander left the first inning trailing by five runs, hung around for six hardscrabble innings and left with as unlikely a win as the Orioles have managed all season. A 6-5 reversal lifted them to 15-3 since the All-Star break and broke a two-game micro-skid. Third-inning home runs by Lenny Webster and Eric Davis along with Mike Bordick's game-winning single in the sixth proved the power of sticking around.
"I was probably one hitter away from going to [Doug] Drabek and one away from going to Pete Smith," said manager Ray Miller, relieved by a win that began so badly.
Instead, Ponson went nowhere, proving he could survive without strikeout power. The win was literally a kick in the head for Ponson. After forcing home the Tigers' first run by hitting ex-Orioles designated hitter Geronimo Berroa with the bases loaded, Ponson surrendered an opposite-field grand slam to third baseman Gabe Alvarez. Covering first and bending low for the throw for the inning's last out, Ponson was kneed in the head by Tigers catcher Paul Bako.
What followed was one of the most potent displays of pitching and defense this season as the Tigers finished without a runner left on base.
Ponson, Alan Mills, Jesse Orosco and Armando Benitez faced the minimum 24 hitters over the final eight innings.
A potentially devastating second inning was defused when Rich Becker threw out Deivi Cruz at third for the first out and Ponson picked Brian Hunter off second. The Orioles turned two double ** plays, including a game-ender, and Webster threw out Berroa attempting to advance on a bounced pitch. The Orioles required only two outfield putouts in the game.
The Orioles rallied for four runs in the third inning when Webster ++ led off with a homer and Davis followed two outs later with a three-run drive into the left-field bleachers. Coming off a .500 homestand, Davis now enjoys a 15-game hitting streak and has hit safely in 28 of his past 31 games. He has 32 RBIs in the span. Nearly half (18) of his past 44 hits have gone for extra bases.
"It's been a long time since I've felt this relaxed," said Davis, whose home run followed a deflating warning-track flyout by Rafael Palmeiro. "Being in there every day helps."
Davis now embraces an everyday role as designated hitter. He )) has not produced such numbers since early last season, before being diagnosed with colon cancer.
"Even then, it seemed like most of what I was getting was home runs. Now, I'm getting my hits even when it's not leaving the
park," he said. "It's more consistent. That tells you I'm more relaxed."
Miller said: "It almost looks like he'd fall asleep at the plate if you didn't pitch."
Besides Ponson, it was Bordick who enjoyed the night's most significant redemption. During a promising fourth inning, he botched a bunt attempt on a 3-1 count with runners at second and third. The attempted squeeze play became an inning-ending double play.
"If the wind had been blowing out it might have had a chance," Bordick quipped of his lined bunt.
Two innings later, Bordick turned a slider by Bryce Florie (5-5) for a two-out single to score Cal Ripken for the go-ahead run.
"This was a great game to win. We overcame some mistakes, lTC but overall we played well. I think this says a lot," Bordick said.
Ponson (4-6) remains something of an enigma. He has allowed first-inning runs in seven of 11 starts. In those seven blemished innings, he has surrendered a total of 14 earned runs. His first-inning ERA stands at 11.45. In his other 50 innings as a starter, he has allowed 22 earned runs, a 3.96 ERA.
"I just forgot about that inning, went out and tried to hold them there," Ponson said. "I threw my pitches and got out of a jam. I'm just happy [Miller] stayed behind me."
"Usually, that's something you see with a more veteran pitcher," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said. "If you don't get them early, you don't get them. It's something we'll work on. It's different."
"Those are youth mistakes," Miller said. "But he came back and got a bunch of people."
Ponson clutched at his head after being trampled by Bako, but never contemplated leaving the game. His reward was tying the third-longest start of his short career.
"I got some good defense and good offensive support tonight," he said. "I tried to keep the game where it was. I don't know what it is. I think I've gotten out of the first inning one time with zero runs. But at least it didn't get worse."
"He hung in there and got a win," Miller said. "It should be a lesson for him."
Mills followed with two perfect innings. Making his 1,001st career appearance, Orosco got the ninth inning's first out before Benitez got pinch hitter Trey Beamon to hit into a game-ending double play. For Benitez, it was his 14th save.
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Tiger Stadium, Detroit
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (8-5, 3.69) vs. Tigers' Frank Castillo (3-6, 7.70)
Pub Date: 7/29/98