CHICAGO -- Upon further review, maybe it is time to panic.
A brutal two-week stretch reached new depths for the Orioles last night at Comiskey Park when the Chicago White Sox pounded a bloodied pitching staff with six home runs among their 15 hits. The Orioles retreated with an embarrassing 16-7 loss, a reliever with his nose laid open and no ready answer to serious pitching questions that could threaten their season.
"You have to ask yourself what's going on," said right fielder Eric Davis. "This has been going on for a while now."
Once 10-2, the Orioles fell back to .500 (13-13) with their fourth straight loss and 11th in 14 games. For the second time in four days they squandered a 4-0 lead, this time behind rookie starter Sidney Ponson (0-1), who surrendered the White Sox's first three home runs during a four-run third inning.
Ponson lasted only four nervous innings, allowing six runs. His last two runs scored when Terry Mathews surrendered a fifth-inning grand slam to first baseman Wil Cordero, who finished with two home runs and a career-high five RBIs.
At one point the White Sox scored nine consecutive runs. Only four days earlier, the last-place Oakland Athletics battered the Orioles with 12 unanswered runs.
"We know it's a long season with a long road ahead of us. The worst thing we can do is really get down on ourselves," said reliever Jesse Orosco, who allowed back-to-back home runs to Albert Belle and Robin Ventura during a six-run seventh inning. "You stay in a positive mode and wait until we break out. When we do break out, we'll start winning a lot of games."
How much longer can they wait?
Already the Orioles find themselves seven games down in the loss column to the New York Yankees and 5 1/2 games behind overall. Their tattered starting rotation won't receive help until Sunday at the earliest when Mike Mussina may leave the 15-day disabled list. No. 5 starter Scott Kamieniecki and center fielder Brady Anderson also are missed.
Manager Ray Miller's "damage control" has yet to take hold. The Orioles employed six pitchers. None fared worse than Norm Charlton, who allowed four runs and committed an error during the seventh inning before being driven from the game when Frank Thomas split his nose open with a vicious line drive. Charlton required four stitches and wore slits for eyes 30 minutes after the game.
"They're embarrassed. Anytime you get pounded like that, it's a snowball effect," Miller said.
The performance became the latest, most embarrassing indignity to a team that has gone from first place to crisis mode within the same month. In the last 14 games, the starting rotation is 2-10 with an 8.95 ERA. Orioles pitching has allowed double-digit runs four times in the past 10 games. The performance was ghastly enough to make the Orioles' three home runs seem trivial.
"I know it hurts Ray where we are. It hurts us, too," Orosco said. "But it's early. If it goes on another month, then we'll worry. Not only will we worry, we'll have a fire sale."
Belle added two homers and four RBIs for the White Sox, who administered the Orioles' worst beating since a 26-7 trampling by the Texas Rangers on April 19, 1996.
Mathews, meanwhile, further established himself as the leader of an imploding pitching staff. Entrusted with a 4-4 tie with two on and none out in the fifth inning, he protected the game against only two batters before Cordero crushed a grand slam to left field -- the White Sox's fourth home run of the game.
For Mathews, the game-breaker was his fourth home run allowed in nine appearances, and his days appear numbered with the team, which is seeking pitching help via a trade.
Against White Sox starter Jaime Navarro (2-3), the Orioles turned patience into a three-run first inning. Roberto Alomar and B. J. Surhoff walked to lead off and then scored on Rafael Palmeiro's three-run homer to right field.
Benefiting from more wildness from Navarro, the Orioles pressed their lead in the third inning when Davis singled, took third on Palmeiro's hooking double into the right-field corner, then scored on a wild pitch that handcuffed catcher Charlie O'Brien.
On the verge of controlling the game, the Orioles instead relinquished the night's momentum when Cal Ripken popped to shallow left field and Palmeiro was caught napping off third base for an inning-ending double play. It was the kind of play that has become too familiar during two weeks of somnambulant play. More often than create runs on the bases, the Orioles have made a practice of giving away outs.
With Ponson making his first major-league start, any scoring opportunity was too precious to give away.
The White Sox responded immediately after Palmeiro's gaffe. Thomas followed a one-out single by center fielder Mike Cameron with a towering home run to left field. Three pitches later, Belle ripped a 421-foot blast to the same area to pull the White Sox within 4-3.