The final start for Sidney Ponson in 2000 began with a bang. The worst possible kind. And a season that showed signs of ending in a positive manner proved to be a tease.
Toronto's Shannon Stewart drilled a home run last night on the second pitch thrown by Ponson. Tony Batista hit a three-run shot later in the inning, and Ponson's quest to reach double figures in victories became as unreachable as the baseball.
This was no way for Ponson to follow up his complete-game victory in Boston just five nights earlier. He settled down after the first, allowing only three hits, but it was too late for the Orioles to reverse a 4-0 loss to the fading Blue Jays before an announced crowd of 30,362 at Camden Yards.
The Blue Jays had little to play for, with Oakland's victory over Anaheim earlier in the day eliminating them from the American League wild-card race and the New York Yankees' magic number at one for clinching the AL East. But they jumped Ponson early and allowed Frank Castillo to dictate the rest.
Castillo (10-5), without a defeat since June 1, didn't allow a base runner until Jerry Hairston walked with one out in the fourth. The Orioles didn't get a hit off him until Brook Fordyce blooped a single into left-center field with two outs in the fifth.
Making his second start since Aug. 13 because of a sore elbow, Castillo left after six innings and 89 pitches as a precautionary measure. He remained in control at that point, with two walks and Fordyce's hit the only blotches on his record.
Ponson (9-13) simply wanted to win consecutive starts, something he hasn't done since mid-April. He went the distance in two of his three previous outings, and left after eight innings in the other, but victories remain elusive. Last night, he was removed for Buddy Groom with two outs in the eighth after walking Carlos Delgado.
"He made two bad pitches the entire game and both of them got hit out of the ballpark," said manager Mike Hargrove.
"The first inning, I couldn't hit my spots," Ponson said. "A fastball outside went right down the middle for a home run, and I left a hanging slider for Batista. I had one bad inning and that was the difference in the whole game.
"I wanted to win my last start, but unfortunately I lost. I threw 212 innings. That's the only positive thing I had the whole year. I threw more innings than last year, but I have more losses than last year. It's a disappointing year, but I battled through it. I'll keep working hard and see what happens."
The offense bailed on Ponson again, just as it has done in so many games, to so many pitchers. Ponson's ERA was 2.84 over his past seven starts, but the Orioles responded with only 14 runs in that span.
He drew praise from Hargrove after Friday's start at Fenway Park. Rather than obsess over strikeouts, Ponson was willing to let the hitters make contact and his fielders make plays behind him. He noted how he was pitching, not just throwing.
That appeared to be the same formula after the first inning, but it couldn't correct his earlier missteps.
Stewart had his 10th career leadoff homer, and fifth this season. A two-out walk to Carlos Delgado and single by Darrin Fletcher proceeded Batista's blast, his ninth against the Orioles this season to tie Frank Howard's record.
Howard did his damage in 18 games during the 1968 season. It took Batista only 12.
Ponson retired 20 of the next 22 batters before Alex Gonzalez reached on an infield hit with one out in the eighth.
Melvin Mora walked with two outs before Fordyce ended Castillo's no-hit bid. With runners on the corners, rookie Luis Matos was caught looking at a fastball to end the threat.
Such is the state of the Orioles' offense, which hasn't been rejuvenated by Albert Belle's return to the cleanup spot. Belle went 1-for-4 last night in his second game after missing the previous 20 because of inflammation in his right hip.
He flared a single into right field leading off the seventh inning against reliever Kelvim Escobar, his first hit since Sept. 3. He also grounded to first, hit into a force and bounced to short. Most important, Belle didn't appear to be favoring the hip while going from first to third on Cal Ripken's double in the seventh. He remains without a home run since Aug. 12, when his two-run shot in the ninth inning defeated Kansas City.
The Orioles perked up after Castillo left, but only for a moment. Mora and Fordyce struck out against Escobar to leave the margin at four runs. Brady Anderson hit a ground-rule double in the eighth but was stranded.
Anderson returned to the leadoff spot after being limited to pinch-hitting duty with a sore right ankle. And more help could come from Jeff Conine, who took batting practice for the second straight day while recovering from a strained ligament in his left ankle.
The Orioles have scored eight runs in their past four victories, only by allowing two runs and holding opponents to a .167 average. They've been shut out twice in the past week.
"It's a number of things," Hargrove said. "Guys could be pressing. We're putting the ball in play, maybe not as hard as we need to, but we've also faced some pretty good pitching during this stretch. Our guys are getting into good hitting counts. They're just not making anything happen when they get there."
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Blue Jays' Chris Carpenter (10-11, 6.17) vs. Orioles' Pat Rapp (8-12, 6.09)