OAKLAND, Calif. - Another lead and another game squandered, another post-game examination of how a team so dangerous at home can struggle so on the road.
The familiar script played out again yesterday afternoon on 25-cent Taco Day at Network Associates Coliseum, where the Orioles crashed three home runs and assumed a three-run lead only to be overcome by another late rally. A barrage of four home runs in three innings against starting pitcher Sidney Ponson and reliever Calvin Maduro was responsible for the Oakland A's 8-5 win that deepened the Orioles' brand as baseball's worst road act.
Now 10-26 on the road compared to 20-12 at Camden Yards, the Orioles and their manager reflected on a trend that has wrecked their first half and threatens their collective psyche.
"There's nothing subtle about this game. It's pretty glaring. When you've got a lead, you've got to put a team away. Flat out, bottom line," said first baseman Will Clark, whose two-run homer in the sixth gave the Orioles a 4-1 lead. "You've got a seven-run lead in the third and a three-run lead in the sixth. You've got to put a team away."
The fourth-place Orioles have labored to do so on the road all year. Beginning with the season's first road trip, no lead has been safe, including Monday night when they lost, 13-12, in 10 innings after leading 8-1 in the third.
Yesterday's loss came despite three home runs - shortstop Mike Bordick supplied the third with his 13th of the season, tying a career high - that accounted for all the Orioles' runs.
Ponson (4-4) had been a holdout from the negative road trend. He entered yesterday with only one of his four wins at Camden Yards and a home ERA (5.22) more than a point higher than his road figure (4.19).
However, Hargrove had romped through his bullpen Monday night by using four relievers after Pat Rapp's two-inning nightmare. His team forced to play less than 14 hours later, Hargrove promised himself to stay away from Buddy Groom, Alan Mills and Chuck McElroy at almost any cost. Groom needed 23 pitches, Mills had faced nine hitters in 1 2/3 difficult innings and McElroy provided a much-needed three innings after Rapp's ouster. Mike Trombley's absence due to a throat infection only worsened the situation, and Jose Mercedes had pitched 3 1/3 innings on Sunday.
Hargrove admitted he might have allowed Ponson fewer than 127 pitches yesterday given a fresher bullpen. Instead, he tried to coax an extra out from him in the eighth inning.
Ponson didn't appear to need a bullpen safety net early. He allowed only one runner to third base in the first five innings and struck out a career-high nine. His only early mistake came when the A's manufactured a two-out run in the third inning that negated Harold Baines' home run in the top of the inning. Having blown leads of 8-1 and 12-7 the night before, the Orioles yesterday mishandled leads of 4-1 and 5-4. In three of the four innings in which the Orioles scored, the A's answered immediately against Ponson.
"These guys played hard behind me. They gave me runs. And I gave them right back," confessed Ponson. "You can't win games like that."
The truism especially applies on the road. The Orioles have now lost nine of their last 10 on the road and haven't won any of their last nine road series. Hargrove, for one, insists it has yet to affect his team's self-image.
"If I ever heard that, I would address it. But I haven't heard that from any players, even in casual conversation," said Hargrove. "I don't think this team perceives itself as a bad road club."
Inconsistencies are clearer within a pitching staff that has performed far better within the supposedly hitter-friendly confines of Camden Yards. Their home 4.67 ERA would rank the Orioles fifth in the American League; however, yesterday's power binge left the road ERA at 6.27, which would rank as the worst in either league.
Averaging 5.34 runs at home, the Orioles are scoring 5.13 runs a game on the road. Statistically a more free swinging team on the road, the difference in runs is almost negligible compared to the mysterious pitching disparity. In fact, the Orioles are hitting .267 at home and .283 on the road.
"Our offense has done great all year long. After last night's game we could have easily had a letdown today. But instead, our offense picked it back up today," said Clark. "Albert [Belle] had a great homestand. B. J. [Surhoff] is hot right now. It looks like Harold's starting to swing the bat pretty good. Bordick's been consistent all year long. It looks like we're just going to have to keep the pressure on offensively."
The A's scored seven of eight runs on homers by Ben Grieve, Eric Chavez, Matt Stairs and Roberto Hernandez. Stairs and Hernandez homered with two outs in the eighth inning, Chavez off Ponson and Stairs on Maduro's fourth pitch after returning from the disabled list.
Ponson has pitched at least seven innings in six of his last eight starts. One of the exceptions occurred because of a 2:07 rain delay last Thursday, the other came May 18 in Texas and represented an epiphany for Ponson on how to better channel his anger.
Yesterday's frustration was enough to invite its return.
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Network Associates Coliseum, Oakland, Calif.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (5-6, 3.67) vs. Athletics' Ariel Prieto (0-0, 11.25)