Johnson's HRs power O's 1st win

3-run HR, 2-run shot off Kamieniecki in 8th drive off Indians, 11-7

Rocked in 2nd, Ponson goes 6

Belle connects

catcher exceeds last April's RBI

April 06, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Two swings, a pump of the fist and a point of the finger confirmed something big for Charles Johnson and the Orioles last night.

Yes, they can beat the Cleveland Indians coming from behind with a starting pitcher at less than his best and with a remade bullpen carrying the load for three innings. And, yes, Johnson can mean more to this club in April than calling and blocking pitches.

On a chilly night that attracted the smallest crowd to Camden Yards in almost four years, Johnson homered in the sixth and eighth innings to reverse a 6-4 deficit and break a 7-7 tie. The remnants of 33,833 who waited out a chilled marathon celebrated an 11-7 win, Mike Hargrove's first as Orioles manager and only the club's second in its last 12 games against the AL Central power.

"This was a big game for us because of the way we started last year," said Johnson, whose five RBIs are four more than he produced all last April. "We don't want to get off to that kind of start again. It's big."

Johnson helped rescue starting pitcher Sidney Ponson from a loss. Ponson suffered through a five-run, three-walk second inning that took 41 pitches to complete. The Indians scored three runs on a pair of walks and a wild pitch while Ponson groped to find the release point on his breaking pitches. Frustrated, he avoided total collapse by holding the Indians to one run in the next four innings.

"It always seems to be something against these guys," said Ponson, who carried a career 0-4 record and 10.87 ERA against the Indians into last night. "I don't know, but I've got to get past it."

Three powerful swings from Johnson and Albert Belle and a solid bullpen performance proved last night's pick-me-up. Belle crushed his sixth career home run off Indians starter Chuck Finley to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead and was then hit by a pitch to nearly incite a scrum in the third inning.

Only seven pitches got Ponson through the first inning. A Rocky Coppinger-like performance almost required sending out a rescue party for him in the second. The Indians exploited three walks, three hits and a wild pitch to construct a five-run rally.

Given a win, even disappointments took on a positive light.

Ponson has yet to find himself but his combativeness made an impression on Hargrove, who has yet to see the 23-year-old at his dominant best.

"I think this is another step in his maturation, to be able to fight through this and keep us in the game," said Hargrove.

Of the troubled second inning, Hargrove said, "We felt he was trying to be a little too fine. The game was not lost in the second inning. The game could easily have been lost in the third, fourth and fifth innings. Sidney allowed our guys to regroup and catch their breath."

By holding off a second charge, Ponson allowed Chuck McElroy, Al Reyes, B. J. Ryan and Mike Trombley to control the game in the last three innings while the Indians' bullpen imploded, allowing seven earned runs and eight hits in three innings. McElroy received an ill-deserved blown save due to an unearned run in the seventh; the rookie Ryan received the win for striking out his only hitter in the seventh; Reyes served as the eighth-inning bridge and Trombley covered an uneventful ninth. The only late-inning oddity was closer Mike Timlin never stirring after Johnson's second home run gave the Orioles a 9-7 lead.

"That's the way it's supposed to happen," said Trombley, who chose not to attach hidden meaning to his pitching the ninth. "Everybody picked everybody up, beginning with Sidney. He held the game together."

Johnson represented the centerpiece of a lineup that received a hit from every player save third baseman Cal Ripken.

A year ago, Johnson played 13 games without producing his first RBI. Comfortable with a quicker, tighter swing as well as his second-year surroundings, last night represented the fifth multi-homer game of Johnson's six-year career.

"I know everybody here now. I'm comfortable with the guys in the rotation," said Johnson, who arrived in Baltimore last season after experiencing a disorienting 1998 in which he was dealt by the Florida Marlins to the Los Angeles Dodgers then turned around to the Orioles in a three-team trade involving the New York Mets. His wife, Rhonda, delivered their first child during the '98 season and when he stepped in the Orioles' veteran clubhouse 14 months ago, his first instinct was to withdraw.

"From what I understand last year he got worn down and his swing got long," Hargrove said. "I didn't see that, but that's what people told me. We'll try to keep him fresher this year."

Johnson's sessions with hitting coach Terry Crowley have begun to show dividends. A powerful player, Johnson has never hit 20 home runs in a season, something Crowley believes will soon change.

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