NEW YORK - The Orioles yesterday lost a game in a way unique to most clubs but not to themselves. Only circumstances and the reaction from some quarters of their clubhouse separated a 13-9 loss to the New York Yankees from what they'd previously experienced.
Given a 7-0 lead after 1 1/2 innings, Orioles starting pitcher Sidney Ponson got only one out during an eight-run second inning that also featured further pounding of star-crossed Jason Johnson. The messy, seemingly endless afternoon before a crowd of 44,104 resurrected questions about the soundness of a pitching staff with ever-changing roles and the maturity of its youngest member.
First baseman Will Clark called the loss "inexcusable" and made little secret of his frustration over Ponson's inability to regain his composure during an interminable second inning.
The Yankees reversed the game after Ponson walked four straight hitters between visits from two players and pitching coach Sammy Ellis and Johnson surrendered back-to-back home runs to Derek Jeter and Paul O'Neill on his first six pitches.
"All you've got to do is look on the scoreboard. They had 13 runs and eight hits [actually 10 hits]. They had seven runs on three hits. That tells the whole story right there," said Clark.
Ponson's performance was complicated by his participation in an unauthorized road trip to Baltimore following Tuesday afternoon's game. Ponson, fellow starting pitcher Scott Erickson and utility player Jeff Conine chartered a limousine to take them to the Metallica concert at PSINet Stadium, returning before Wednesday night's game. Manager Mike Hargrove didn't learn about the trip until later. He met with the three after yesterday's game.
"They went without permission. When I became aware of it, the matter was handled internally. The players have been disciplined. We'll move on," said Hargrove, left to perform yesterday's only head-banging.
Admitting he took "nothing" to the mound yesterday, Ponson downplayed the trip's effect. "If I go out in New York City on the Fourth of July until 4 or 5 in the morning, it's the same thing. And it doesn't make any difference," he said. "I was mentally prepared; I just didn't throw strikes."
Erickson started Tuesday's win and likely would have received Hargrove's permission if asked. Ponson and Conine, who started at third base Wednesday, might have been tougher calls.
One player not associated with the trip thought it "a reach" to associate Ponson's shortest major-league outing with his heavy-metal experience. Ponson maintained, "If I don't walk all these guys, nobody says anything."
But yesterday's meltdown couldn't pass without unusually blunt commentary from the Orioles manager and his first baseman. The loss marked the second time in 17 days the Orioles have blown a seven-run lead, the second-largest collapse in club history. They began their recent 2-8 road trip by dropping an 8-1 third-inning lead behind Pat Rapp in Oakland on June 19.
"I have seen more losses this year with seven or eight runs scored in the first two innings of a game than I've ever seen in my big-league career," said Clark, who broke in with San Francisco in 1986. "That has to do with a starting pitcher with a seven-run lead throwing strikes. It's inexcusable what happened today."
The first four of six Orioles pitchers walked nine hitters. Four scored. "We're paid to catch it once it's hit. If it doesn't get hit, you can't catch it," said Clark.
The 36-47 Orioles jumped Yankees starter Ed Yarnall for a 2-0 lead before their first out. Brady Anderson's 40th career leadoff home run was followed by Mike Bordick's double and consecutive singles by B. J. Surhoff and designated hitter Albert Belle. They followed with four more runs, including two RBIs apiece from Bordick and Surhoff, before making their first out in a five-run second inning to chase Yarnall and position themselves for their first series win at Yankee Stadium since 1997.
"I saw this kind of game on the last road trip, I saw this kind of game on the road trip before that. And I saw that kind of game today," said Clark. "It's getting old. When the offense goes out there and pounds the opposing starting pitcher, you're supposed to shut somebody down."
Able to go at least seven innings in seven of his last eight starts, Ponson unraveled. "I've been throwing eight innings. It comes to a point when you come to a wall. I don't want to make excuses but I had nothing today," he said.
A scratch single by Bernie Williams preceded four straight walks, forcing home two runs. Clark and Charles Johnson went to the mound to steady Ponson. Both failed.
"That's the first time this year that Sidney lost his composure," said Hargrove. "He could never regroup. That's the first time this year he's done that. Always before, he's been able to step back, relax, be aggressive and throw strikes. Today, he wasn't able to do that."
"[Ponson]'s got a ton going for him," said Clark. "He throws 95, 96 [mph] ... a breaking ball, a changeup and a slider. But you've got to throw the ball over the plate. We had C.J., myself and Sammy Ellis go out there trying to get him focused. And finally he had to get yanked."
Ponson lasted two hitters after his fourth walk. Jose Vizcaino grounded out for the first out, but Chuck Knoblauch's single cut the lead to 7-4. Johnson entered, allowing Jeter's three-run homer on his fourth pitch and O'Neill's on his sixth.
Williams chased Johnson with the Yankees' third home run in the fourth inning. David Justice immediately greeted Chuck McElroy with another blast, his first since being acquired from the Cleveland Indians, to give the Yankees their second set of back-to-back homers and a 13-7 lead.
The Orioles know Ponson will quickly recover. But they must now wonder about Johnson. Hargrove handed him a three-run lead with Ponson ineligible for the win. Instead, Johnson left the field two innings later, his head bowed with his record tying Mike Boddicker's 12-year-old franchise record for the worst to start a season.
Opponent: Philadelphia Phillies
Site: Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Mike Mussina (5-7, 3.84) vs. Phillies' Curt Schilling (4-4, 4.52)