ARLINGTON, Texas - First came the cap, then the glove, and finally the blue-tinted vocabulary. Sidney Ponson flung them all after being removed after 129 grueling pitches with a 7-4 lead in last night's sixth inning. Perhaps it was a show of immaturity from the 23-year-old. More likely, it was a demonstration that the Orioles starter knew what was coming.
Five pitches later, the Orioles trailed by a run when Texas Rangers designated hitter David Segui crashed a three-run homer off struggling rookie left-hander B.J. Ryan.
The result was an 8-7 Rangers win before 32,961 at The Ballpark in Arlington. Less than 24 hours after failing to win despite losing three three-run leads, the Orioles led by five runs only to trail after facing the next eight hitters.
Losers of 13 of 15, the 17-23 Orioles face the very real threat of being becoming buried before June for a second straight season. The common denominator to too many of these losses has been a leaky bullpen that features either unproven youth or veterans with multi-year contracts.
Manager Mike Hargrove conceded before the game that any improvement would have to come from those already on hand. Meanwhile, the bullpen has blown 11 saves, suffered 10 losses and carries a 7.05 ERA.
The Orioles lost despite seven extra-base hits, including home runs by catcher Greg Myers and center fielder Brady Anderson. They lost once again because of a bullpen that has resisted definition for one-fourth of a season.
Myers cracked three hits but was forced from the game in the seventh inning because of cramps in his left leg.
This was their 11th blown save and the fourth time Ponson has left a game with the lead only to be sent home with nothing. He reacted badly to his removal, pounding his glove and a cup of water. When pitching coach Sammy Ellis approached with a consoling word, Ponson appeared to wheel on him and walk away."I took Sidney farther than I've ever taken him in the past. I took him probably as far as I thought we could," said Hargrove. "If a couple plays are made we're out of the inning without what happened happening."
Ryan came on to allow a single to left-handed hitter Rafael Palmeiro. Segui, forced to miss Wednesday's game with the flu, then punished Ryan's first pitch for a home run. Ryan has surrendered 12 earned runs in his last five outings covering 3 1/3 innings. His ERA has skyrocketed from 0.66 to 7.02 because of it."There are right moves and wrong moves. Just because a move doesn't work doesn't mean it's the wrong move," said Hargrove. "There are ways we have to find to get out of this."Honest to goodness, I don't think I've ever seen something like this in all the years I've been in baseball. I'm tired of saying this: but it will turn around. You have to keep showing confidence in people and let them pitch their way out of it. ..."B.J. Ryan is a good young pitcher. Mike Trombley is a good pitcher. Mike Timlin is a good pitcher. We've got good pitchers. It's just not working right now. I think the wrong move is to start trying to pull rabbits out of hats and really use people out of their role."
Ponson entered the game having walked 26 (while striking out only 22) in 52 1/3 innings, a disturbing percentage combined with his nine home runs surrendered. Before last night, Ponson had yielded a 6.93 ERA and six home runs in his last four starts, during which he was 0-2."I've got to pitch better than that," said Ponson, who was charged with six runs and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings last night. "If I don't pitch better than that, I won't win five games this year."
In his last start, Ponson was on the wrong end of a Pedro Martinez 15-strikeout, two-hit complete game. Last night, he faced off against Rangers ace Rick Helling, who was second to Martinez in ERA (2.28) and opponents batting average (.187).
The Orioles have never been cowed by Helling; they extended their indifference last night by jumping him for two runs in each of the first two innings.
Anderson's leadoff walk and Delino DeShields' double created a situation that allowed Albert Belle to drive in one run with a ground ball to a relaxed infield and Harold Baines to score DeShields' with a double on a 3-0 pitch.
The bottom of the lineup again worked the magic that contributed to a solid April in the second. Myers singled with one out, moved to second on Mike Bordick's hit and scored on Anderson's single through the middle. DeShields followed with a sacrifice fly to produce a 4-0 game.
Rather than produce a huge rally, the Rangers chipped away at Ponson for single runs in the second and third innings.
Ponson again received help from his batterymate in the fourth inning. With the Rangers successfully chipping away at a once-secure lead, Myers led off with a towering home run onto the Ballpark's grassy knoll in center field. It was Myers' first regular-season home run since last Aug. 4 and first of any kind since he injured himself on a home run cut in the last exhibition game at Chattanooga, Tenn., April 1.
A three-run lead wasn't enough in Anaheim the night before. And Ponson pitched knowing that his bullpen already had suffered 10 blown saves in the first 39 games.
Aside from spotty bullpen help, the Orioles entered last night 2-12 in their previous 14 games because of an offense that wouldn't ignite. Left fielder B.J. Surhoff continues to fight his worst slump in recent years. He went hitless in his first three at-bats to fall to 12-for-85 in his last 23 games and 2-for-30 in his last nine games. He already had dealt with an 0-for-17 and an 0-for-14 stretch this season. At this time last year, Surhoff was in the middle of a 15-game hitting streak.
During their last 14 games, the Orioles had been outscored 100-51. Both their wins were by one run and two of their last three had come through ninth-inning rallies.
Help from Helling - and a leaping catch by Surhoff to help stop a fifth-inning rally - allowed the Orioles a big lead. They took a 6-2 lead in the fifth thanks to Belle's second double followed by three walks, the last one to Myers to force home the run.
Surhoff may be listless offensively, but he earned his keep defensively in the fifth by leaping at the left-field wall to take extra bases away from Segui.
The Orioles then grabbed a 7-2 lead in the sixth when Anderson crushed his seventh home run. It was the first time since May 2 that the Orioles enjoyed such a cushion.
But it wasn't enough."You hate to be down hurting the team," said Ryan of being the night's goat. "It's something you have to battle through. It's tough to swallow but you've got to keep going."
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jason Johnson (0-2, 4.66) vs. Rangers' Esteban Loaiza (1-2, 5.24)