The Orioles offense continued to wind down with a shrinking season yesterday. Shown no mercy by the Seattle Mariners' deep rotation, it virtually abandoned Sidney Ponson for a seventh consecutive start in a 3-2 loss before an announced crowd of 40,440 at Camden Yards.
Mariners starting pitcher Freddy Garcia pounded the Orioles for seven innings before shortstop Alex Rodriguez reached Ponson for a two-run home run in the eighth inning. Rodriguez's homer followed a debatable two-strike call that extended the at-bat and infuriated Ponson. Immediately after Ponson's near miss, Rodriguez turned a fastball around for his 38th home run.
The loss dropped the Orioles 17 games below .500 (66-83) for the first time this season and gave the Mariners their second three-game sweep against them in two years. Seattle has now won the past seven games between the teams.
Ponson (8-12) faced a lineup pressing for a division championship; Garcia saw a makeshift lineup missing Albert Belle, Cal Ripken and Jeff Conine. The difference showed.
The Mariners outscored the Orioles 27-4 in the sweep. Part of the punishment for exposing young players to playoff competition has been seen in a 3-8 stretch typified by little offense.
"We just haven't been getting big hits when we need them," manager Mike Hargrove said. "When that doesn't happen, it makes it hard to win."
Shortstop Melvin Mora struck out to end the eighth inning with runners at first and third. Mired in a brutal slump, second baseman Jerry Hairston concluded his seventh consecutive hitless game by grounding out with the tying run at second base.
The Orioles again looked beyond the scoreboard for something salvageable. Ponson's performance became yesterday's source.
Last year, Ponson won only once after Aug. 10 with a 7.01 ERA. Since this Aug. 10, Ponson is 2-5 despite a 3.98 ERA. He has become increasingly comfortable with a split-fingered fastball and, by Hargrove's count, yesterday misplaced only four of 111 pitches.
"Sidney is believing in his ability to pitch lately," Hargrove said. "He's showing confidence in his pitches and his ability to throw them when he's behind in the count. That's the difference in his last couple starts."
Perhaps the 23-year-old's most telling decision was to enter an off-season program with strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop. He emerged with his legs and endurance strengthened.
"I'm starting to hit my spots now," said Ponson, who has walked five against 25 strikeouts in his past 24 2/3 innings. "I think a lot of that has to do with conditioning. I feel like my legs are 100 percent under me this year compared to last. Conditioning has been the big difference. I just have to keep working hard and see what happens."
No matter how strong Ponson's legs, they couldn't lift an offense lacking veteran influence. Hargrove pieced together a lineup with 56 total home runs, including 12 combined from the fourth, fifth and sixth spots. Rookie first baseman Chris Richard became the Orioles' fourth cleanup hitter since Belle left the lineup 13 games ago due to a hip condition.
Brady Anderson, meanwhile, stood out enough that he walked four times - twice intentionally - as three Mariners pitchers chose to attack Hairston.
"That's OK, because my time will come to get even," said Hairston, unable to push the ball from the infield in yesterday's five plate appearances as his week-long funk reached 0-for-23. "I'm having a tough time right now, but it'll come. Right now, they're getting me. It'll turn."
Garcia (8-4) is the wrong kind of pitcher for an impressionable lineup to face. His constant change of pace left the Orioles off balance for seven innings.
"He mixes speeds so well, it's hard to really get comfortable in there," said Richard, 0-for-3 against Garcia, but able to extend an eighth-inning rally with a single.
Garcia held the Orioles hitless for three innings and extended their run of consecutive shutout innings to 19 before catcher-turned-designated hitter Greg Myers began the seventh inning with an opposite-field home run, his first since May 18. Garcia has allowed seven runs in his past five starts, all on bases-empty home runs.
Ponson was hurt by the home run as well. Mariners first baseman John Olerud smoked an 0-2 fastball into the right-center-field bleachers to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. Two innings later, Rodriguez struck back at Ponson after three poor at-bats had brought him two strikeouts and a fly ball.
"I made too many mistakes out there today," said Ponson, resisting any temptation to mention that the Orioles have scored only 14 runs in his past seven starts.
"I have nobody to blame but myself. I need to pitch better, that's all."
Ponson spoke quietly and with little inflection. To earn a win these days, pitching well usually is no longer good enough.
"I have two more starts left," he said. "We'll see what happens then."
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Athletics' Kevin Appier (13-11, 4.63) vs. Orioles' Pat Rapp (8-11, 5.77)