9th is lucky for O's again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This time, instead of retreating, the Orioles made a stand.

Instead of beating themselves, they allowed the Seattle Mariners to drop a three-run lead before putting the winning run on base with a walk.

This time, the Orioles made off with a 4-3 win before 37,262 at Camden Yards because starting pitcher Sidney Ponson gave a mature performance and Mariners second baseman Mark McLemore made a rash read on a ninth-inning ground ball that became a game-ending mistake.

Completing an encouraging comeback, the Orioles beat the Mariners when B.J. Surhoff's grounder short-hopped a charging McLemore and skipped into right field, allowing pinch runner Delino DeShields to score from second base.

"I missed the ball. I blew it," McLemore said. "I wanted to start a double play. B.J. can run good."

The win was significant for several reasons. Cal Ripken became the 20th player in major-league history to amass 1,600 RBIs, reliever Buddy Groom (3-2) struck out the side in a perfect ninth inning to gain the win, and the Orioles won with a ninth-inning rally again. Their last four wins have come in such fashion. It also gave the Orioles consecutive wins for the first time since April 28-29 and assured them of their first series victory this month.

Surhoff's grounder came off old friend Arthur Rhodes, who relieved Kazuhiro Sasaki (1-3) after an opening walk to Ripken. Rhodes then walked Will Clark on four pitches to force the winning run into scoring position. After a strikeout, Surhoff chopped a grounder that consumed McLemore.

Uplifting as the outcome may have been, incredible things continue to prevent the rotation from gaining wins. Three times, including Tuesday, Pat Rap has left games with a lead only to watch the bullpen fold. Mike Mussina has received the third-stingiest run support in the American League. Scott Erickson watched a 5-0 lead evaporate Sunday in Texas. Ponson hadn't won since April 21 when the Orioles took an 11-3 lead over the Oakland A's then held on for an 11-9 win.

Ponson's wait continues. He provided eight innings that became increasingly stronger as the game progressed but left after 120 pitches. Orioles starters remain stuck on one win since April 29.

"I thought Sidney was absolutely outstanding," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "The way he went about his business picked everybody else up."

The Mariners jumped Ponson for a first-inning run when designated hitter Edgar Martinez followed Mark McLemore's single with a two-out double.

McLemore had stolen his want into scoring position, inviting a walk to cleanup hitter John Olerud, before Martinez crushed his 51st RBI in 43 games.

Martinez returned in the fourth inning with Olerud again on base following a leadoff walk. Martinez, who entered the game 4-for-6 lifetime vs. Ponson, lined a home run into the left-field seats, giving him the league lead with 53 RBIs. After slamming five home runs on the Mariners' just completed homestand, Martinez picked up his 14th of the season for a 3-0 lead.

The Orioles have led their share of three-run games only to blow eight of them. This time they reversed roles against Mariners left-hander John Halama, who entered 5-0 in seven starts despite a relatively decent but unexceptional 4.06 ERA. Halama had crafted three quality starts in his seven outings but benefited from a combined 56 runs, or an average eight per start.

Halama stumbled early but saved himself with a double play grounder in the first inning and by Surhoff and Mark Lewis' failure to score Ripken from second base in the second inning.

The Orioles finally broke through in the third inning when their first four hitters reached and Surhoff contributed his first RBI since May 5, a span of 57 at-bats.

Albert Belle led off with a double and scored on Ripken's single into left field. The RBI improved Ripken's season total to 29 in 136 at-bats, a ratio of one every 4.69 at-bats.

A walk to Will Clark put the tying run on base, and Charles Johnson's single scored Ripken and advanced Clark to third base. The extra 90 feet became crucial when Surhoff grounded slowly to shortstop. The Mariners couldn't challenge Clark at the plate and were unable to make an attempt at a double play as Surhoff broke an RBI drought extending for almost three weeks.

A sluggish start has caused teams to wonder whether they might obtain Surhoff at a discount. The New York Yankees have expressed interest in a player who entered the season having established career highs in home runs in four of the last five years. But yesterday, a high-ranking Yankees official said he felt there was "no chance" Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos would allow either Surhoff or Brady Anderson to move to his team's most bitter rival.

Last night represented the second time this season Hargrove had dropped Surhoff from No. 3 to No. 8 in the order. At his best, Surhoff is a line-drive hitter to all fields and a dangerous situational hitter. At his worst, which has been the case this month, he is in a 4-for-44 funk (.091) over his past 13 games and is 14-for-97 over his past 27 (.144).

Now given a second chance at a win, Ponson began to cruise. He benefited from Johnson's second caught stealing in as many nights and steadied himself after Stan Javier and Tom Lampkin led off the seventh inning with back-to-back singles. Ponson had three strikeouts until then but overpowered shortstop David Belle and left fielder Rickey Henderson for consecutive stirkeouts. During the escape, Ponson consistently hit 97 mph with his fastball.

Ponson, whose strikeout ratio entering the game was lowest among those starters with more than four appearances, crested in the eighth when he made Martinez his sixth strikeout on a 99 mph fastball that ended the inning and his appearance.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Seattle Mariners

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Mariners' Paul Abbot (1-1, 6.97) vs. O's Mike Mussina (1-6, 4.42)

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