Blue Jays rain down on O's, 7-4

Ponson is rocked for 5 runs in 2 2/3 innings in first start of season

Ripken returns to lineup

Thunderstorms delay start for 1 1/2 hours

April 10, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Time for a dose of perspective. The 1998 New York Yankees lost four of their first five games and went on to set an American League record with 114 regular-season victories.

The 1998 Orioles, you might recall, won 10 of their first 12 games but were out of contention for the division title by mid-May. It's too early to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions.

Now, time for a dose of reality. The 1999 Orioles are not the 1998 Yankees, so last night's rain-delayed 7-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards -- their third defeat in four games -- created cause for some early-season concern and spoiled Cal Ripken's return to the starting lineup.

No. 4 starter Sidney Ponson lasted just 2 2/3 innings and gave up five earned runs in his first start of the season, which looked too much like the frightening exhibition outing he had against the Philadelphia Phillies in his final appearance of the spring.

The runs continue to pile up on the Orioles' starting rotation, which has given up 20 in 18 innings (10.00 ERA). The staff ERA stands at 7.00 and the club will have to make a roster move this weekend to add journeyman starter Doug Linton to the rotation for the final game of the homestand tomorrow.

"Obviously, there's not much to talk about except our shortcomings," said manager Ray Miller. "We've used 18 or 19 innings from our bullpen. This club is going to be all right if we can get our pitching straightened out, but I'm starting to run out of patience."

The Blue Jays scored in each of the first four innings and then held on to even their record at 2-2, disappointing the hardy fans that remained from the paid crowd of 36,430.

Thundershowers delayed the first pitch for 95 minutes, which -- as it turned out -- wasn't nearly long enough for Ponson. He gave up a leadoff home run to Shannon Stewart in the first inning and struggled with his control during a three-run second as the Blue Jays picked up right where the Tampa Bay Devil Rays left off.

The expansion Devil Rays scored 21 runs in the season-opening series and got surprising production from the back end of the batting order to win two of the three games.

Stewart started the early onslaught last night, but it was the final two hitters in the lineup -- Darin Fletcher and Alex Gonzalez -- who delivered the big hits in the second inning, much as Miguel Cairo and Kevin Stocker had done with a combined 12-for-19 performance for the Devil Rays.

Ponson created the opportunity with back-to-back walks to former Oriole Willie Greene and promising center fielder Jose Cruz. Fletcher followed with a bloop hit to left to bring home one run and Gonzalez lined a double to right-center to score another. Stewart added a sacrifice fly for his sixth RBI of the young season.

No doubt, it is a statistical aberration, but the four-game totals for the eighth and ninth slots in the opposition batting order are staggering. The final two batters in the lineup are batting a combined .500 (14-for-28) with 10 runs scored and eight RBIs.

The Orioles got on the board in the bottom of the second against promising Blue Jays starter Kelvim Escobar (1-0), but even their first rally was tainted by a stroke of bad luck. Albert Belle and Harold Baines opened the inning with back-to-back singles and Ripken would drive home a run with his first hit of the season, but his double might have brought home two runs if B.J. Surhoff had not been called out at first on a questionable double play moments earlier.

"This club is going to break loose and break loose in a big way," Miller said. "There ain't nobody happy in that clubhouse, but there ain't nobody down either."

The 49-degree temperature and the slippery field might have created the perfect excuse to give Ripken another night to rest his sore lower back, but Ripken returned to the lineup after a two-game absence and batted in the seventh position.

Ponson lasted just four batters into the third inning. He gave up a leadoff double to Shawn Green and a sacrifice fly to Carlos Delgado before a two-out walk to Greene convinced Miller to give him the rest of the night off.

"I think I was rushing," said Ponson, "but I don't make excuses. I tried to throw strikes, but I just wasn't capable of doing that tonight."

Miller indicated that he felt Ponson came into the game too "wound up," and had trouble staying under control on the mound -- perhaps because he felt pressure to succeed because the rest of the rotation has struggled.

"That might be the problem," Ponson said. "I want to do my best and maybe I'm trying to do more than I can."

It was Ponson's second rocky outing in a row. He gave up six runs to the Phillies in his final exhibition start of the spring last week in Birmingham, Ala., and wondered aloud whether he was ready for the regular season. Apparently, his concerns were warranted, but the Orioles are in no position to start him off in a less demanding role.

Right-hander Scott Kamieniecki opened the season on the disabled list, creating an opening in the rotation that will be filled by Linton in tomorrow's series finale.

Orioles today

Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 1: 35 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Blue Jays' Chris Carpenter (12-7, 4.37 in 1998) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (1-0, 7.20 in 1999)

Tickets: About 4,000 remain

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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