Every fifth day the Orioles pull out their unpolished dia-mond and ponder its worth. Some days it makes them smile. Other days it makes them cry.
Yesterday afternoon's opener of a split double-header was a handkerchief-holder as the Orioles watched starting pitcher Sidney Ponson's brilliance again become clouded by halting development, his obvious frus-tration and ultimately an injury of uncertain severity.
The Orioles gained a split of the day-night double-header against the Boston Red Sox by rallying for a 9-4 win after losing, 11-7, behind Ponson in the opener. But due to growing concern surrounding Ponson, the split could hardly be considered even.
Second baseman Mark Lewis' bases-loaded double capped a four-run third inning that turned a 3-2 deficit into a 6-3 lead that starter Scott Erickson (5-7) and three relievers would make stand. Erickson lasted 5 1/3 innings on 95 pitches, most of them balls, while allowing six walks and four earned runs. Those teams still scouting him as a trade possibility continue to wait for late movement to return to his pitches.
Will Clark's second home ran of the doubleheader and Mike Bordick's 16th home run helped the Orioles win their first of six home games against the Sox.
Ponson, still 23 and still in possession of a 97-mph fastball, again revealed a tendency to fumble early leads and generous run support as the Red Sox administered a 17-hit beating before a decidedly pro-Boston crowd at Camden Yards. The aftermath included an-other round of silence from Ponson, a tight-lipped manager and a clubhouse seemingly re-signed to its impending breakup. It also begged the question considered an organizational third rail: why has Ponson's progress braked?
Repeatedly this season manager Mike Hargrove, first-year pitching coach Sammy Ellis and various front office executives have lavished praise on Ponson for better anger management, more pro-ficiency at blowing hitters away with high fastballs and supposedly greater maturity. But after yester-day's start Hargrove stepped gingerly around Ponson's perform-ance while Ellis abstained from specifics.
"There are a number of positives with Sidney," reminded Hargrove, who cited the absence of off-speed assortment as yesterday's most notable negative. "The No. 1 being -- except for one time --keeping his composure on the mound. You see a guy that has Sidney's ability and talent.., it's developing his ability to maintain focus that's all-important. He has made huge strides in that direction."
And as if things couldn't get more grating, the Orioles were serenaded in their own park during the ninth inning.
Let's go, Red Sox ... Let's go, Red Sox ... Let's go, Red Sox.
The Orioles can insist Ponson was victimized yesterday by lob shots, opposite-field bloops and poor luck, but it has become increasingly clear that he has failed to show progress in his third major-league season. He teased with a shutout in Minnesota on April 16 but has since misplaced thc changeup that made the dominant performance possible. He brought praise for better mound presence, then reverted during an eight-run, four-walk second inning in New York July 6.
Ponson allowed his performance to speak for him for a second straight start. Rather than address it, Ponson sat quietly at his locker with his head bowed.
Ponson (5-6) remains irritated by reports of his unauthorized road trip with two teammates to a July 4 Metallica concert at PSINet Stadium. Ponson returned to New York barely 24 hours before a ruinous 1 1/3 -inning start in which he helped drop a 7-0 lead to the Yankees. Though disciplined for the concert trip, Ponson has since told club officials he felt the incident was unfairly inflated.
Yesterday's middle-inning collapse hiked his post-Metallica ERA to 10.68 in three starts.
Ponson's 5.46 ERA is higher than either his rookie 1998 season (5.27) or last (4.71). Yesterday he tied a career high with nine strike-outs while surrendering 11 hits and eight earned runs.
"He had a good fastball, but he had a tough time with his change-up," said catcher Greg Myers.
Every Red Sox starter except designated hitter Morgan Burkhart had a hit off Ponson, who surrendered only four fewer hits (11): than he managed outs. Gabe Molina and Mike Trombley picked up the last four innings, allowing six hits and three runs to the same lineup that punished Ponson.
Once a clubhouse bright light, Ponson now prefers to sulk. Considered untouchable last winter, club officials no longer use the term and a future move to a closer has even been discussed.
Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra bumped his average to .403 with a 3-for-5 first game that needed only a home run for the cycle. At least one of his hits was helped by a de-fensive lapse.
With the Red Sox leading 5-4, Garciaparra ripped Ponson's first pitch of the fifth inning to the center-field wall. Brady Anderson retreated but couldn't make the catch on what was scored a triple.
Troy O'Leary added to his 4-for-4 game with an RBI single.
Trying to power his way through the inning, Ponson slightly strained a neck muscle and was in obvious enough discomfort for Hargrove to make a mound visit with two outs, one on and catcher Jason Varitek approaching. Ponson convinced Hatgrove he could finish the inning. Varitek countered by ripping a home run to make it an 8-4 game.