Saunders drops O's to 1-hit low

Glen Burnie alumnus allows no hits for 7 2/3 in O's 6th loss in row, 1-0

Bordick breaks up bid

Ponson, Rhodes allow only 4 hits themselves

April 23, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For much of this month, the Orioles have complained about being only one hit away from numerous breakout innings.

Last night against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they again were one hit away.

Against Glen Burnie High alumnus Tony Saunders, the Orioles found themselves only one hit removed from becoming a footnote to history as shortstop Mike Bordick's two-out, eighth-inning single was all that separated the Devil Rays left-hander from pitching the first no-hitter in franchise history.

As is, Saunders and the Devil Rays completed a sweep of the three-game series with a 1-0, one-hit win before 17,334 at Tropicana Field.

The Orioles' sixth consecutive loss dropped them to 1-8 on an 11-day road trip. Manager Ray Miller, whose tenure may or may not survive a coming 12-game homestand, spoke in fragments afterward as the Orioles contemplated the pieces of a season already gone horribly wrong.

The Orioles stagger home at 3-12, the worst record in the majors. Their trip was marred by brutal pitching, two shutouts and a second series sweep suffered against a 2-year-old franchise that now finds itself six games ahead of its $84 million American League East rival.

Bordick saved the Orioles total embarrassment by lifting a jam shot over the Devil Rays' infield. Saunders, who had thrown 127 pitches, was immediately replaced by Jim Mecir, who in turn handed off to closer Roberto Hernandez in the ninth.

"It was one of those situations where you battle each other and you have to put the bat on the ball," said Bordick. "Hopefully, it finds a hole, you get on base and hope that the next guy hits a home run."

Starter Sidney Ponson (0-2) became only the second Orioles starter to hold an opponent scoreless for three innings. He showed confidence in his defense and overcame his own mistakes, allowing one run and three hits in 5 1/3 innings. Arthur Rhodes finished up with 2 2/3 shutout innings, allowing one hit. Their reward was the Orioles' second shutout loss in four games. They were shut out twice in the last 98 games of 1998.

The Orioles were outscored 67-39 on the road trip and lost their last six, all on artificial turf. They were outscored 28-15 in the first three innings, including 15-1 in their last five games. The Orioles have not experienced a lead in 47 innings dating to the seventh inning of last Friday's 7-6 loss in Toronto.

"We're playing hard, but we're making mistakes here and there and it's hurting us. We're not winning innings. We need to win some innings," said second baseman Jeff Reboulet.

Not since Aug. 2, 1995, had the Orioles suffered a one-hitter. They won that game on a Harold Baines home run.

Saunders (2-2) offered the Orioles a chance to rip open the game in the first inning. Instead, the Orioles turned the opportunity into an unbelievable stumble.

Rich Amaral and Bordick led off with walks, less than surprising against a scatter-armed left-hander who entered with as many walks (12) as innings pitched. But the Orioles have spent this month distinguishing themselves as hapless situational hitters. Despite ranking eighth in the league in team average, the Orioles had left more runners (128) than any other club.

The tendency continued when first baseman Jeff Conine grounded into a 6-4-3 double play with Albert Belle on deck. With two outs and first base open, the Severn resident quickly walked Belle and then hit Lenny Webster with a pitch. (Webster had drawn the Devil Rays' ire by tripping shortstop Kevin Stocker on a play at the plate Wednesday.) With the bases loaded, Saunders went after B. J. Surhoff, the only left-hander in the starting lineup, and produced a strikeout on three pitches.

The Orioles performed the rarely seen stunt of receiving three walks, a hit batter and a stolen base (from Belle) and managing not to score.

Charles Johnson ended the second inning by grounding into another double play and Webster stifled a fourth-inning rally by hitting into the Orioles' third double play.

Saunders was effectively wild. Though he frequently missed, he missed low in the strike zone. It wasn't until Webster lofted an inning-ending fly ball in the sixth that the Orioles pushed a ball out of the infield. He struck out Willis Otanez, Reboulet and Johnson in the fifth.

Meanwhile, Ponson gave the Orioles a much-needed competent start. Coming after Scott Erickson's and Mike Mussina's combined 15 earned runs allowed over 5 1/3 innings, Ponson did everything to contain the Devil Rays except hold a pivotal base runner in the fourth inning.

The closest the Orioles came to a hit early was Amaral's line drive at first base. Wade Boggs, playing the unusual combination of first baseman and cleanup hitter, made a lunging grab to deny Amaral extra bases.

"It's baseball," lamented Amaral. "You can do your job and still fail."

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