Two swings, a pump of the fist and a point of the finger confirmed something big for Charles Johnson last night.
The Orioles' sure-handed catcher erased a two-run deficit with a three-run homer in the sixth inning then returned two innings later to break the Cleveland Indians and Orioles exile Scott Kamieniecki with a two-run shot that broke a tie and accounted for an 11-7 win at Camden Yards.
Johnson's five RBIs not only rescued the big-swinging Orioles from an 11th loss in 12 games against the Indians, it smoothed over a jagged six-inning start by Sidney Ponson, a rough performance by the Orioles infield and potentially flammable third-inning situation involving Indians starter Chuck Finley and right fielder Albert Belle.
Before a crowd of 33,833 -- the smallest to attend a regularly scheduled Orioles home game since April 11, 1996 -- the Orioles scored eight of their first nine runs on Johnson's twin blasts and Belle's three-run homer in the first inning. Once into the Indians' bullpen, they kicked around Steve Reed, Kamieniecki and Tom Martin for seven runs in three innings.
Johnson represented the centerpiece of a lineup that received a hit from every player save third baseman Cal Ripken.
A year ago, Johnson played 13 games without producing his first RBI. Comfortable with a quicker, tighter swing, last night represented the fifth multi-homer game of his six-year career and third since joining the Orioles.
A four-man bullpen effort conspired with Johnson. Handed a 7-6 lead after Johnson's first homer, Chuck McElroy suffered an undeserved blown save because of an unearned run in the seventh inning after a Mike Bordick error. (Ripken had made one the inning before.) Al Reyes pitched a perfect inning and rookie B. J. Ryan's reward for a strikeout of Kenny Lofton was his second major-league win.
The win allowed manager Mike Hargrove to avoid harder questions, mostly concerning the struggling Ponson.
Ponson labored through spring training with a 6.75 ERA that included 52 hits and a .342 opponents' batting average in 28 innings. Throughout camp, Ponson dismissed the numbers as unspectacular but no cause for concern.
Hargrove and pitching coach Sammy Ellis nodded in agreement. They had little alternative. The loss of No. 2 starter Scott Erickson to elbow surgery until at least mid-month and the optioning of Jason Johnson to Triple-A Rochester means Ponson must step up.
The night briefly looked to be made for reversals early on as Belle made an April statement with a three-run homer to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead. Belle complained as recently as last weekend about his tendency to pull off pitches, but he was all over Finley's knee-high fastball that he pulled into the left-field bleachers.
Only seven pitches got Ponson through the first inning. A Coppinger-like performance almost required a rescue party to escape the second. The Indians exploited three walks, three hits and a wild pitch to construct a five-run rally. Ponson fell into trouble with one out and a runner on when he walked designated hitter Richie Sexson after leading him, 0-and-2.
David Justice's single loaded the bases as Ponson appeared increasingly uncomfortable. Abandoned by his fastball, he began groping for off-speed help. He found none.
Travis Fryman walked to force home the first run. Sandy Alomar walked on five confused pitches to force home Sexson with the second. Reliever Tim Worrell began to stir after Ponson's 37th pitch.
The Indians tied the game without a swing when Ponson appeared to cross up Johnson, bouncing a cut fastball off the back foot of plate umpire Ed Rapuano. Justice scored, both runners advanced and ultimately scored when Omar Vizquel jammed a two-out double between Will Clark and the first base line. Ponson finally got out of the inning with 41 pitches.
Ponson controls the New York Yankees as well as any right-handed pitcher south of Boston. He has established himself as a credible innings force. But he crumbles upon catching sight of the Indians.
In six previous starts vs. Cleveland, Ponson had never gone beyond the fifth inning. Last season, Ponson first encountered the Indians after winning consecutive starts only to be crushed for eight earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in May. The situation repeated in August when the Indians ended another two-game run by Ponson with five runs in five innings. Ponson lasted four innings in a September start, leaving him with a 13.17 ERA for the season against the AL Central champs.
Last night's trauma neither destroyed Ponson nor his backing. The Orioles pulled within 5-4 in the second on Clark's double and Bordick's one-out single. They then threatened in more than one way in the third inning but fell back.
When Delino DeShields stole his second base with one out, Finley filled the open base by hitting his nemesis, Belle, in the back of his left leg. Belle started toward the mound but was intercepted by Rapuano, who had ejected Indians manager Charlie Manuel earlier in the inning.
Both benches emptied but never converged as Belle further vented to first base umpire Bill Miller.
Belle represented the go-ahead run at first but the threat evaporated when Justice made a sliding catch of Jeff Conine's sinking liner in left field. DeShields broke on the hit and was easily doubled off to end the threat -- the Orioles' fourth double play in 12 innings.
Finley, signed last December for $27 million over three years after a free-agent chase that included the Orioles, was less than dominant but managed the game well. He handed a 5-4 lead to Steve Reed after throwing 95 pitches (47 strikes, 48 balls) in five innings.
Finley had allowed only two base runners and no hits to his last 10 batters faced.
But the prospect of running into an elevated pitch count -- and Belle for a third time -- persuaded bench coach Grady Little to call upon the sidearming Reed.
Reed prolonged the sixth inning by pitching timidly to the left-handed-hitting Clark with two outs. Johnson, his bat quicker than last season, then crushed a fastball that rose to thigh high for a 416-foot home run to the deepest part of the park.
Normally reserved, Johnson pumped his right fist as he rounded first base. The Orioles, beaten 9-1 in last year's series by the Indians, felt revenge.
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05
TV/radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Indians' Charles Nagy (17-11, 4.95 ERA in 1999) vs. Orioles' Pat Rapp (6-7, 4.12)
Orioles starter Sidney Ponson struggled last night, but he lasted 3 1/3 innings longer than he did in his first start last season, a 7-4 loss to Toronto in the fourth game. A look:
April 9, 1999
IP H ER BB SO Res
2 2/3 4 5 3 2 L 7-4
April 5, 2000
IP H ER BB SO Res
6 8 6 3 1 ND