Indians strike down Ponson, O's

Young pitcher stays close to plate, gets eaten up in 11-6 defeat

Six-run 4th blows it open

3-run HR, 2-run HR come on 0-2 pitches

May 12, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- While Orioles starting pitching has improved significantly the last 10 days, it showed again last night that problems remain. Sidney Ponson had no problem throwing strikes. But against the game's most prolific offensive club, his strength became a weakness in the Cleveland Indians' 11-6 win before 40,587 at Jacobs Field.

Ponson surrendered home runs to Richie Sexson and David Justice, both of whom had homered the night before, as the Indians recovered from an early 2-0 deficit for a six-run fourth inning. The Indians scored in each of their last five at-bats, draining the Orioles' bullpen along the way. Now 12-20, the Orioles have surrendered five home runs the past two nights and are now guaranteed a series loss after capturing their previous three.

Part of Ponson's recent success stemmed from his willingness to mix off-speed pitches among a dominant power assortment. Last night he went away from it and was charged heavily.

Both home runs came on 0-2 counts. Both stemmed from his inability to waste a pitch against a lineup of professional hitters.

The 23-9 Indians have homered in 15 consecutive games, lead the league in runs scored and are the only major-league team with a team average above .300. The Seattle Mariners have more home runs, but the Indians have much more bash, brandishing a .523 slugging percentage.

"It's important in pitching to have good command both in and out of the strike zone," said pitching coach Bruce Kison. "There are times when you want to bounce the breaking ball in the dirt. To do that you have to have good command out of the strike zone."

Orioles pitching continues to play fast and loose with leads. One night after Juan Guzman couldn't protect three leads in a well-played 6-4 loss, the 22-year-old Ponson bungled a 2-0 advantage built against wobbly Indians starter Bartolo Colon (5-1), who pitched inefficiently -- seven hits, four walks and a home run in six innings -- but survived long enough to receive the decision.

Ponson (2-3) was coming off consecutive quality starts that earned him wins against Minnesota and Chicago. He had allowed 12 base runners in the 14-inning span and given the Orioles reason to believe they had found a second consistent arm to go with Mike Mussina.

Unable to generate anything the first time through the order, the Indians swung from the heels the next time around. Second baseman Roberto Alomar continued his crusade against his former team by leading off with an opposite-field double. Ponson then walked Manny Ramirez.

Left fielder Wil Cordero fell behind Ponson, 0-2. It was then that Ponson committed the first of several mistakes when way ahead in the count as Cordero slashed an RBI single to score Alomar. Justice raked the Indians' third consecutive hit to score the tying run.

It all happened so quickly that Ray Miller didn't rouse his bullpen until after Travis Fryman scored Cordero with the inning's fourth consecutive hit for a 3-2 lead.

Three pitches later it didn't matter who was warming. Ponson got ahead of Sexson, 0-2, then made the night's most serious mistake when the Indians' No. 8 hitter turned Ponson's next fastball an estimated 416 feet deep into the left-field bleachers.

Jacobs Field, a quiet place when the inning began, suddenly shook. Ponson, who appeared under control while cruising through the first three innings in 29 pitches, suddenly found himself trailing 6-2 against a lineup without give.

The six-hitter meltdown occurred in an 18-pitch span, 15 fewer than Colon threw during the Orioles' one-run rally in the top of the inning.

His willingness to throw strikes makes Ponson an attractive find. However, against a free-swinging team such as the Indians it can become a negative. He had no trouble getting two strikes on hitters but found a third one against only one batter.

"Sidney has such great stuff that at times he can be around the plate too much," said catcher Charles Johnson. "He needs to learn there are times when you need to throw strikes and other times when you need to throw balls.

"And I think once he learns that he's going to be an outstanding pitcher with the stuff he has."

Miller allowed Ponson to start the fifth and was rewarded with back-to-back outs. But again the second-year pitcher hurt himself with a two-out walk to Cordero. He then got ahead of Justice, 0-2, and again made a mistake that was driven from the park. Down 8-2, Miller finally removed Ponson.

Decent pitching would have given the Orioles a chance as they continually came back against Colon. They failed to exploit a 33-pitch fourth inning in which Colon forced home a run with a two-out walk of Johnson.

Down six runs, the Orioles finally jumped on Colon in the sixth when first baseman Jeff Conine crashed his second home run of the series and fourth since May 4. After doubling, sore-backed Delino DeShields scored on Mike Bordick's single with one out. The inning collapsed, however, when Johnson grounded into a 5-4-3 double play.

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