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 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.

Given a win, even disappointments took on a positive light. Ponson has yet to find himself but his combativeness made an impact.

"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 instead of going out and pitching to halves of the plate. From that point on he gathered himself and kept us in the game.

"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 faced in the eighth; Trombley pitched 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.

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 and third since joining the Orioles.

Only seven pitches got Ponson through the first inning. A Coppinger-like performance almost required a rescue party to escape the second. The Indians exploited three walks, three hits and a wild pitch to construct a five-run rally. Ponson fell into trouble with one out and a runner on when he walked designated hitter Richie Sexson after leading him, 0-and-2.

David Justice's single loaded the bases as Ponson appeared increasingly uncomfortable. Abandoned by his fastball, he began groping for off-speed help. He found none.

Travis Fryman walked to force home the first run. Sandy Alomar walked on five confused pitches to force home Sexson with the second. Reliever Tim Worrell began to stir after Ponson's 37th pitch.

The Indians tied the game without a swing when Ponson appeared to cross up Johnson, bouncing a cut fastball off the back foot of plate umpire Ed Rapuano. Justice scored, both runners advanced and ultimately scored when Omar Vizquel jammed a two-out double between Will Clark and the first base line. Ponson finally got out of the inning with 41 pitches.

Ponson controls the New York Yankees as well as any right-handed pitcher south of Boston. He has established himself as a credible innings force. But he crumbles upon catching sight of the Indians.

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