Saunders lays one on home team

Glen Burnie High grad holds O's hitless for 7 2/3 in 1-hit, 1-0 victory

Loss is 6th in row, 9th in 10

Ponson, Rhodes allow only 4 hits themselves

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

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A season pocked by nonexistent pitching threatened to reach a new low last night when Severn resident Tony Saunders strong-armed the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to a 1-0, one-hit win over the Orioles at Tropicana Field.

If not for shortstop Mike Bordick's jam-shot single with two out and two strikes in the eighth inning, Saunders might have become the first pitcher in franchise history to pitch a no-hitter. Instead, he became only the latest to beat a team winless since April 15.

"My first thought? Catch it," Saunders said of the lone hit. "Afterward, I thought, `Well, I made a heck of a run at it. It was a little bit up but it was inside. I was joking around with Bordick in Baltimore about how much he hurts me. Man, he kills me."

Few opponents have said that of the Orioles recently. They stagger home 3-12 after a 1-8 road trip marred by brutal pitching, two shutouts and their 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.

A six-game losing streak accompanied the Orioles home where tonight they begin a 12-game homestand that may or may not represent the end to manager Ray Miller's tenure. In 15 games the Orioles have fallen to the same depths they took 83 games to reach last season, when they fell nine games under .500. Saddled with the worst record in baseball, they have yet to win consecutive games, yet to win a series, yet to do little other than resemble a team resigned to its fate.

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 only three hits in 5 1/3 innings. His reward was the Orioles' second shutout loss in four games. They were shut out twice in the last 98 games of 1998.

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 lefthander 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 on 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, Saunders 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 earlier in the series.) 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, Jeff Reboulet and Johnson in the fifth.

Meanwhile, Ponson gave the Orioles a much-needed competent start. Coming after Scott Erickson 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.

Ponson matched Saunders for three innings. Actually, he outpitched him. While Saunders needed 27 pitches to get through a messy first inning, Ponson used only 38 pitches through three innings. Amaral contributed back-to-back running catches in the right-center field gap. While Saunders wore out the Tropicana Field rug, Ponson wore out his outfielders. Of his 16 outs, 12 were outfield putouts.

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.

Johnson challenged him again to lead off the eighth but was defeated by second baseman Miguel Cairo and his own lacking speed. Johnson chopped a one-hopper that Saunders deflected toward second base. Cairo charged and beat Johnson with a submarine flip.

Able to work quickly, Ponson also benefited from something other than flat-footed defense. Belle contributed two strong plays in the fifth inning, including a sliding catch to rob Cairo.

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