MONTREAL -- As embarrassing as the Orioles' 9-4 loss to the Montreal Expos appeared last night, it could have been far worse. Since the game was played in Olympic Stadium, a sports mausoleum with a dysfunctional roof and an apathetic fan base, only 9,116 witnessed a game that tested new lows for the game's most monied roster. At least the catcalls were in French.
The Orioles didn't just lose their fourth straight. They were dominated by an $11 million clubhouse that goes through perpetual rebuilding.
Who knows? Rebuilding may soon become appealing to the Orioles.
At least manager Ray Miller beat the rush. He was ejected by second base umpire Joe West after arguing a forceout call in the fifth inning. It was the third close call on the bases to go against the Orioles and provided an obvious reason for Miller to receive his third early exit this season.
By doing so, he missed the rest of the Expos' four-run inning that included a pair of bases-loaded walks from flustered rookie Sidney Ponson (1-6).
The loss dropped the Orioles to 37-43, within one game of their season low point. They trailed 3-0 after the first inning, 5-0 before scoring, and never climbed closer than
three runs against five Expos pitchers. Starter Dustin Hermanson (6-6) pitched the minimum five innings for the win. The Orioles provided the minimum offensive fight in the loss.
Ponson, meanwhile, represented only the latest wreck by a rotation that works only when Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson handle the ball. In their past 25 games, Orioles starters have failed to pitch at least six innings 15 times.
"We walked eight; they walked one," Miller said. "That's the difference in the game. We get two outs in the first inning, they bloop a hit, get a walk, then a guy hits a home run and we're down 3-0."
Ponson made it through only 4 2/3 innings, but it wasn't for lack of opportunity. With his bench two hitters short and his bullpen worn out, Miller allowed Ponson to bat in the fifth inning while trailing 5-0. Ponson, who now wonders if he is tipping his %J pitches, buckled during the bottom half of the inning, forcing home two runs with walks, including one to Hermanson, and surrendering nine earned runs.
The 31-47 Expos managed 12 hits, four by center fielder Rondell White. White started the assault with a two-out, three-run home run in the first inning.
Shortstop Mark Grudzielanek contributed three hits and the ground ball that brought about Miller's ejection. Shortstop Mike Bordick took the forceout throw from Roberto Alomar in the vicinity of second base and threw late to first, but West also called the runner at second safe.
Earlier Vladimir Guerrero was called safe on a leadoff triple in Montreal's two-run third. Bordick's relay throw to third baseman Cal Ripken appeared to beat Guerrero, but he was called safe by umpire Jeffrey Kellogg.
Brady Anderson brought the Orioles within 5-2 with a fifth-inning home run to right-center field and Lenny Webster and Bordick completed the scoring in a two-run sixth.
Otherwise the Orioles looked listless against a lightly regarded but more aggressive bunch that mashed five extra-base hits. The Orioles produced 10 hits but only two before the Expos had grabbed a five-run lead.
The game appears to be catching up to Ponson. Since holding the New York Yankees to two hits and no runs in 6 2/3 innings June 16, he has allowed 14 earned runs and 18 hits in 9 2/3 innings. The Orioles have lost by a cumulative 43-17 in his six starts.
"I'm going to work harder to get out of this," Ponson said. "I keep trying to duplicate what I did against the Yankees. I need to think about the start in front of me. I'm going to talk to [pitching coach] Mike Flanagan, watch some videos, anything to prepare myself better. Maybe I need to change speeds on some of my pitches."
Hermanson was hardly spectacular, but spectacular is often unnecessary against a team that too often can't escape the first inning without tumbling into a hole. He took the win despite surrendering seven hits and four earned runs in five innings.
Every Orioles starter except Webster hit safely. However, the Expos are adept at using the spacious middle of their ballpark to foil big-swinging clubs such as the Orioles.
"We're not dead yet. We've still got time," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "They're going to have to make some decisions about this club soon, but there's still time."
Somewhere in his office Miller found reason for optimism. Mussina's start today is as good an explanation as any.
"I've got a feeling it's going to turn around [today]," Miller said with admittedly little to support his claim. "We've got Moose going. Then we've got the bullpen ready to go Sunday with an off day coming up. I just see us getting something going before the All-Star break. It's a feeling."
Miller was already changed into street clothes courtesy of his early exit. Perhaps a shower, a cigar and two hours to reflect allowed him a unique perspective.
Opponent: Montreal Expos
Site: Olympic Stadium, Montreal
Time: 7: 05 TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Mike Mussina (6-4, 3.72) vs. Expos' Carl Pavano (1-1, 4.41)
In trouble in hurry
In four of his six starts, Sidney Ponson has run into trouble in the early innings:
......... 1st .. 2nd
Date Opp. inn. ..inn. .. IP .. ER
6/4 Bos. .1 .....2 ......5 2/3 4
6/9 Phi. .1 .....1 ......6 ....2
6/21 Tor. 1 .....2 ......5 ....5
6/26 Mon. 3 .....0 ......4 2/3 9
Pub Date: 6/27/98