O's streak skids to halt; Royals win it in 12th on B. Johnson HR, 7-5, after O's lose 5-2 lead;Bullpen shuffle is costly; Ponson's strong 7 undone by Reyes' 8th

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A near-perfect start suffered its first troubling blemish last night. The Orioles lost a game in 12 innings to the Kansas City Royals that they should have won in nine while manager Mike Hargrove attempted to make sense out of a shuffled bullpen.

Four outs away from their sixth consecutive win, the 5-2 Orioles were undone when middle reliever Al Reyes surrendered a three-run homer to third baseman Joe Randa in the bottom of the eighth. The Orioles were beaten four innings later, 7-5, on Brian Johnson's one-out, two-run homer off Tim Worrell.

The slow-starting Worrell (1-1) may have taken the loss, but the game fell into doubt four innings earlier after Hargrove lifted starting pitcher Sidney Ponson for Reyes. A bullpen that had given almost seamless performances in the previous six games suddenly came undone, negating Ponson's positive showing, a lightning swing by Cal Ripken and three RBIs by center fielder Brady Anderson.

Before a Kauffman Stadium crowd of 13,080, the Royals scored six of their seven runs on three home runs. Johnson's walk-off blast was the second in as many days for the Royals (6-3), the early surprise within the AL Central. For Worrell it marked the third time in as many appearances -- against a total 21 hitters -- he has surrendered a home run.

"I think it would be too early to read too much into Tim Worrell giving up home runs," said Hargrove. "Obviously, if this continues very much longer, it concerns you a little bit. But it's not consuming me."

Any solid bullpen is a well-ordered thing. Hargrove seemed to install such order during spring training only to have it disrupted when his closer, Mike Timlin, could not start the season because of a torn abdominal muscle.

Reyes ordinarily would not have found himself in the situation. But without Timlin, Mike Trombley has become closer pro tem and the eighth inning is suddenly unsettled territory.

Reyes had saved his roster spot with a strong finishing kick to spring training. He entered last night with three scoreless appearances and apparently the trust of his manager.

"That was really the first time Al's given it up like that," Hargrove said. "I think it's more of a matchup-type inning than if Timlin was back closing. I'd be more inclined to turn it over no matter what to Trombley. We started to bring Trombley in there with two outs in the eighth inning and probably would have had the situation been different. I thought Reyes matched up well against Randa. He just happened to hang a pitch."

Hargrove had Trombley warm along with Reyes. Had the situation been different, Hargrove said he would have been more prone to bringing on Trombley to finish the eighth before starting the ninth. Instead, Trombley never came through the gate.

After a threat arose on Carlos Febles' double and a walk to Jermaine Dye, Reyes showed Randa a first-pitch changeup. Randa turned on the pitch for a home run that became the first deflating moment in the Orioles' season.

"I left a changeup up. When you make a mistake, you pay for it," Reyes said.

With the date of Timlin's return uncertain, Hargrove says his bullpen stepladder will now be determined almost batter-to-batter rather than inning-by-inning. Opportunities are to be had but adjustments also must be made.

"It's a long season. It's too early. You can't give up because of one pitch," Reyes said.

Ponson provided a soothing, seven-inning start that came without a strikeout but offered the first peek at the talent projected by many as a breakthrough candidate this season. Ponson left after 99 pitches -- a lower count than carried by Mike Mussina and Jose Mercedes in two previous starts. Within five hitters, the Royals had forced a 5-5 tie and Hargrove had been punished for keeping faith with a pitcher who trailed every hitter before Randa's home run.

For the first time this season, the Orioles played ahead for the first seven innings. For the first time this year, they buckled late.

A three-run second inning and Ponson's middle-inning efficiency allowed him to overcome a sixth-inning error as well as his recent string of indifferent appearances.

"It's up to them," Ponson said of his exit following a quality start. "Ninety-nine pitches in seven innings I did my job. It doesn't do any good to blow it out in April when it's a long season. You don't start going nine innings now. It's not time to push it."

Hargrove explained his motivation as leaving Ponson with "a good taste" after experiencing a tough spring training and eventful first start. Ponson faced little trouble of his own making after the second inning.

"It's kind of like a young, wild colt," Hargrove said before the game. "You have to ride him long enough for him to settle in. I'm seeing progress in the way Sidney handles himself on the mound. He has the potential to be absolutely electric every time he takes the mound. And I don't think you can ever give up on that. If you're ever going to give up on it, you need to really err on the side of caution before you do."

Cal Ripken's second-inning home run gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead and pushed him to within five of career hit 3,000.

Only hours earlier Ripken had said jokingly that he would take "a jam-job hit or a bad decision from the official scorer anything."

After entering with a .167 average and nearly as many errors (two) as hits (three), Ripken hammered Royals rookie Chad Durbin's third pitch for his second homer of the season and 404th of his career and tied him for 29th on the all-time RBI list (1,575) with Jake Beckley.

The inning didn't end until Anderson had given the Orioles a 3-0 lead by grounding an opposite-field single through a hole at shortstop to score Will Clark and Mike Bordick. Clark had walked and Bordick pushed him to third on a double that Johnny Damon booted into foul territory. Anderson's .158 average got another boost in the fifth inning when he turned on Durbin for his first home run, a hooking shot off the right-field foul pole that restored a three-run lead.

Second baseman Delino DeShields played a complete game, participating in several huge defensive plays and singled and scored on Albert Belle's two-out double in the seventh inning. His diving stop stole a run from the Royals in the fourth inning and he participated in a pair of inning-ending double plays.

Ponson suffered an uneven spring and struggled through his first start, surviving six earned runs and 11 base runners to clear six innings against Cleveland on April 5. Ponson actually left the game ahead, 7-6, but was deprived of the decision in what ended an 11-7 Orioles win. There was little concern over Ponson's velocity but persistent questions remained about his location, questions that resurfaced early last night.

Given the 3-0 lead in the second inning, Ponson managed to turn a potential disaster into a telling escape, an event that might help redefine his April.

Designated hitter Mark Quinn began a one-out threat with a double into the right-center-field gap. A walk to Johnson preceded Ponson falling behind No. 9 hitter Rey Sanchez, 3-1. A walk to Sanchez would have loaded the bases for Damon, who crushed the Orioles for a .405 average last season.

Ponson instead rallied. After forcing a full count, he got Johnson to ground to Bordick, who began an inning-ending double play.

Of course, hours later, Johnson would return with better results for the suddenly soaring Royals.

"We're not going to let ourselves get carried away with this," Johnson said of his winning blow, which followed ninth, 10th and 11th innings when the Royals only needed a mere single to win against B. J. Ryan, Chuck McElroy and Worrell and couldn't get one. "We'll always be happy with a single if that's all it takes."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Kansas City Royals

Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.

Time: 8: 05

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: O's Pat Rapp (1-0, 3.00) vs. Royals' Mac Suzuki (0-0, 9.00)

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