SEATTLE - Whatever hope this decaying season extended to the Orioles all but evaporated yesterday afternoon. Given enough starting pitching from Sidney Ponson and enough power to win, they suffered another late-inning collapse when Seattle catcher Tom Lampkin crushed an eighth-inning grand slam off closer Mike Timlin to give the Mariners a 4-2 victory and a sweep of their four-game series at Safeco Field.
The reversal extended the Orioles' season-high losing streak to nine games and dropped them 13 games below .500. It also resurrected questions about their ability to win on the road, win close games and win when Timlin is asked to expand his role into the eighth inning. It has done nothing to change the direction of a spiraling season.
During the 0-7 segment of this trip to nowhere, the Orioles have:
* Lost after leading Oakland by seven runs and finishing with 12 runs, the most in a loss in franchise history.
* Lost when leading 4-1 after 5 innings and 5-4 after 8 in Ponson's previous start.
* Lost despite allowing only two runs behind No. 4 starter Pat Rapp, who didn't allow a hit for the last 5 1/3 innings of his start.
But yesterday's eighth-inning meltdown might have overshadowed them all.
Timlin (2-3) inherited a 2-0 lead and six pitches later was left to finish a two-run loss. Lampkin's first career grand slam was the fifth allowed by the Orioles and the third by their bullpen this season.
There is no more bizarre element to this trip than this: The Orioles have scored first in every game and blown nine leads.
"I'm not upset. I'm disappointed," said manager Mike Hargrove, bleeding as much from the loss as a post-game shave. "We played hard. ... To get to the point where we were and get a loss ... that's what's tough."
Having received bases-empty home runs from designated hitter Harold Baines and catcher Charles Johnson mixed with another strong showing by Ponson, their No. 2 starter, the Orioles returned to the Eastern time zone last night having experienced a winless West Coast tour. The Orioles are now 0-7 at Safeco Field, 10-31 on the road this season with only one road win since May 30, and have lost eight times when ahead after seven innings.
Repeatedly on this Oakland- Seattle swing, the Orioles followed excruciating losses with solid performances. Every time, their reward has been a longer losing streak. Hargrove has been heartened all season by his team's character. But with it dropping to depths beyond even last season, Hargrove was asked how long the quality could be expected to last.
"I don't expect it to go anywhere," he said. "These are tough people. They show up to play every day. I don't expect that to change.
"I'm not saying the frustration level doesn't rise. Obviously, it does. But for us to show up and start going through the motions ... I would be absolutely shocked."
At 30-43, the Orioles remain two games behind last season's disastrous run and are tied with Tampa Bay for last place.
As if more doom and gloom were needed, they now head into a 10-game stretch against AL East opponents who own a combined 9-1 advantage against them.
"You have to put the good and bad behind you," said Baines, whose third-inning home run off Mariners starter Paul Abbott accounted for a 1-0 lead. "Hopefully, you have more good than bad."
"I'm surprised it hasn't been better than this," said Mike Mussina, who has experienced his share of disappointment this season due to support issues. "It doesn't feel the same as last year, for whatever reason. But I guess it's pretty close to being the same."
It has started to look the same. The Orioles have won seven games this month after winning nine in May. A veteran clubhouse now anticipates sweeping changes.
Ponson declined to take questions after the game. He stalked through the clubhouse with his arm wrapped and had words for no one.
A day after Rapp received a loss for allowing two runs in seven innings, Ponson got a no decision for doing the same. Rapp threw 137 pitches. Ponson threw 123. But unlike Rapp, Ponson left the mound after walking the first two hitters of the eighth inning still leading.
Despite the lingering unavailability of Mike Trombley because of strep throat, Hargrove had his bullpen primed with Alan Mills, Buddy Groom and Timlin. Mills retired Edgar Martinez on a fly ball to shallow right field. Groom got John Olerud to fly out to left field. Timlin hadn't pitched since June 19, creating the possibility of rust. He also entered an inning in progress, something Hargrove has tried to avoid whenever possible.
A hint of things to come occurred when Timlin hit Mike Cameron with his first pitch, loading the bases. "I felt fine. I threw a sinker to Cameron and the pitch just got away. It hit him in the arm," Timlin said.
As a crowd of 45,030 hooted at the former Mariners reliever, Timlin started Lampkin with consecutive balls before mixing in a strike. He then threw a low fastball that caught too much of the plate and Lampkin's bat before disappearing into the dancing crowd.
"I got to look at three fastballs. It was a little easier," Lampkin said. "He's got a good sinker. Everybody knows it. I've hit that pitch to the second baseman 350-400 times."
One by one, the Orioles peeled themselves from their dugout railing, turning away from the circling Lampkin as Timlin turned from the plate. The turnaround gave the win to ex-Oriole Arthur Rhodes (2-2) in return for his striking out the side in the inning's top half.
"He hadn't been in a game for five days," Hargrove said when asked whether his closer having to appear in the eighth inning might have factored in his early lapse. "If you're looking for excuses or crutches, use that. Mike's pitched more than one inning before. The way the bullpen's set up without Trombley, that was his lot."
After trying to calm himself for 10 minutes after the game, Timlin offered no excuses about his third blown save in 10 chances. "We had a chance to win when we weren't winning and I let the team down," he said. "That's how I feel about it."