Maybe Sidney Ponson was this good, or the New York Yankees had tired themselves out in a 19-run rampage the previous night. Maybe it was a little bit of both. Whatever the reason, the Orioles had a chance to avoid being swept and falling a season-high 14 games below .500.
A clutch hit or two would have made all the difference last night. They spent the whole series waiting for one.
While the Yankees were manufacturing enough runs to stay ahead of Ponson, the Orioles were wasting opportunities at every turn in a 4-1 loss before 47,691 at Camden Yards. They went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position last night, 3-for-32 in the series. They left 28 men on base. And they drew within 2 1/2 games of last place in the American League East after dropping their fourth in a row.
"This series was the exact opposite of the way we swung the bats and scored runs in Toronto," said manager Mike Hargrove, referring to the two wins the Orioles picked up on their brief road trip. "We got a lot of big hits there in key situations, and we just didn't here. We had chances to get back in the game and go ahead in the game, and we never could get that big hit and allow us to maintain that momentum."
Ponson (5-7) would welcome some momentum. He began the month with a complete-game victory over Toronto, the third time he had gone the distance this season. It's also the last time he won.
There was the Bronx bombing, when he mishandled a 7-0 lead against the Yankees and was gone by the second inning. And the July 14 loss to Atlanta when he allowed two bases-empty home runs and was outpitched by Andy Ashby. And the pounding administered by the Boston Red Sox in the first game of last Thursday's doubleheader, when he surrendered eight runs and 11 hits in five innings.
Each time, the Orioles gave him a lead that he couldn't hold.
That wouldn't be a problem last night. The best the Orioles (43-57) could do was tie the score in the first inning on a run-scoring single by Will Clark. The Yankees came back with two in the second and stayed in front, making the Orioles 23-40 against teams with winning records.
Ponson was removed in the eighth after a leadoff triple by Bernie Williams and run-scoring single by David Justice off the scoreboard in right. Replays showed that Williams should have been credited with a home run after the ball struck the wall above the padding in center field. It was the first run allowed by Ponson since the second inning. He hadn't given up a hit since the fourth.
"I had some good innings and some bad innings. We'll see what happens next time," said Ponson, who allowed eight hits, walked three and struck out four. He has two wins at Camden Yards since Aug. 5.
"I've been inconsistent. I throw some good games and then go out there and throw a bad game. I've been putting too much pressure on myself. I don't know why, but I'm doing it. I've just got to go out there, have fun, throw the ball and let those guys play."
Ponson was trying to gain ground in the race to become the only current member of the rotation with a winning record. Jose Mercedes relinquished that title after going to the bullpen because of today's open date on the schedule and the club's desire to get another look at left-hander John Parrish. Though he accepted Hargrove's decision, Mercedes' disappointment was evident when he twice declined to address the subject with reporters yesterday.
Frustration is seeping into every corner of the Orioles' clubhouse. They're 5-9 since the All-Star break and no longer find refuge at home. They've been swept here twice in the second half to lower their record at Camden Yards to 26-21. They already hold the worst road record in the majors at 17-36.
The Yankees went ahead 3-1 in the second inning. Again, most of the damage came with two outs and Ponson ahead in the count.
Chestertown's Ryan Thompson reached base for the sixth time in the series with a single into center field. Jose Vizcaino doubled down the right-field line and Derek Jeter walked with two outs. O'Neill, who had six RBIs on Tuesday, singled on a 1-2 pitch to score Thompson and Vizcaino.
"Once Sidney got past the second inning he was pretty good the rest of the way. He kept the ball down, threw strikes, got his breaking ball over better and kept us in the game," Hargrove said. "With a big hit here or there, we could have had a different outcome."
Ponson's neck began to stiffen around the fourth inning, the same problem that hastened his departure on Thursday. He received treatment from the training staff and said it wasn't a factor.
"I just threw some balls right down the middle, up in the zone and they got some base hits," he said. "I threw some good pitches and got some ground-ball outs. I just have to get myself untracked and start winning some games."
The Orioles kept pecking away at Yankees starter Dwight Gooden but couldn't break off anything significant. That would be the theme of this series.
They got two hits and a stolen base in the first inning for one run. They got a double and a walk in the second, a single in the third and a single and stolen base in the fourth. Each time, Gooden got an out when he needed it.
The only time he failed to do it was the sixth, when the Orioles loaded the bases on a double by Albert Belle and two-out walks to Jeff Conine and Harold Baines. He nearly struck out Baines for the third time, but catcher Jorge Posada couldn't hold a foul tip. Once Gooden issued his third walk, manager Joe Torre brought in Jeff Nelson, who retired Charles Johnson on a bouncer to short.
Gooden's biggest outs probably came in the first when Belle hit into a double play to end the inning. Jeter went deep into the hole to backhand the ball and throw to Vizcaino, who still had time to get Belle after it appeared the Yankees would have to settle for a force.
Rain fell through most of the game, which began with rookie Luis Matos in center field despite the Yankees starting a right-hander. Brady Anderson was rested as a precaution after suffering leg cramps on Tuesday.
"By the time the ninth inning rolled around he had cramps in both legs," Hargrove said. "I just thought I'd give him a day off."
Matos might need a few after last night. He crashed into the padding while chasing Williams' triple and was sprawled on the warning track as B. J. Surhoff chased down the ball.
Trainer Richie Bancells and Hargrove raced from the dugout as Torre lobbied for a home run, and Matos eventually rose to his feet and stayed in the game.