Sox pound O's, 11-6

Ponson yields 3 HRs in 4 innings as pitching woes rise

Thomas hits grand slam

Down 4-0, O's tie

HR Baines' 2,800th hit

April 27, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO --- The Orioles reached the first furlong of a long season as a 12-8 team last night. What the record doesn't indicate, however, is the growing concern over a rotation still searching for a foothold.

Last night, the Chicago White Sox battered starter Sidney Ponson for three home runs in four innings of an ugly 11-6 loss before 13,649 at Comiskey Park. No longer does a gaudy team batting average gloss over deficiencies that have touched Ponson and even the undefeated good-luck charm, Pat Rapp. The situation now affects the team's next roster move.

Rather than return Scott Erickson to the rotation for a Sunday start against Texas, the Orioles are likely to summon reliever Gabe Molina to address a growing crisis within an overheated bullpen. Combined with yesterday's waiver claim of infielder Mark Lewis and accompanying designation of long reliever Tim Worrell for assignment, too few innings from the rotation make an 11-man staff an unaffordable luxury.

Erickson provided a creditable line in Tuesday's rehab start at Single-A Frederick. However, concerns linger over his velocity. The last three days, in which Mike Mussina, Rapp and Ponson have given their shortest starts of the season, apparently simplified the club's direction.

Hargrove wouldn't confirm which way the team would go. But when pressed on whether Erickson would make another rehab appearance he said, "I think there's a chance. Right now I think it's 50-50."

Backing up Erickson's return to May 5 in New York removes another uncertain factor from the rotation. Though Erickson has placed first or second in innings the last two seasons, he will likely be placed on a 90-100 pitch limit when he first returns. For a second straight night, 100 pitches couldn't carry an Orioles starter into the sixth inning.

Ponson, frustrated by a straight fastball and a lack of precision, provided his briefest outing since last Sept. 5 as the Orioles pounded three home runs among 10 hits and got nothing in return.

Thanks to back-to-back homers, including a three-run blast by Carlos Lee, the White Sox reached Ponson for a four-run second inning followed by a five-run fourth featuring a grand slam by first baseman Frank Thomas.

Able to rally from the four-run deficit, the Orioles couldn't answer twice against a string of relievers who followed White Sox starter Kip Wells (2-2).

As they wait for Mussina's first victory and Erickson's first appearance, the Orioles must wonder when they will shed the nasty habit of hurting themselves with walks and home runs.

"I feel comfortable with where we're at," Hargrove said of the rotation. "The best lies ahead. By no stretch of the imagination am I elated, but ... as we go along it'll be OK."

Losers of three of their past four, the Orioles are rid of the scalding White Sox after this afternoon until mid-August. Good thing. The last three nights have sent the rotation into a tailspin with the only win going to Rapp in exchange for five earned runs in five innings. Hargrove used four relievers in Tuesday night's 12-6 win then learned yesterday afternoon that he had lost a fifth, Worrell.

Ponson became the Orioles' third consecutive starter to suffer his worst outing of the season. Due to the bullpen shortage, Ponson was made to pay for the sins of his predecessors as well as his own.

True, the rotation beyond Mussina is 7-1. However, chronic inefficiency manifested in ridiculously inefficient pitch counts may be now exacting a toll.

Rapp, a feel-good 3-0, still needed 100 pitches to labor through five innings Tuesday.

Mussina threw 111 pitches Monday in 6 1/3 innings after averaging the same number of pitches in four previous starts totaling 31 2/3 innings.

Ponson got to 100 pitches in only four innings, including 36 in the decisive five-run fourth inning that featured Thomas' sixth career grand slam and second homer in 11 at-bats off Ponson.

The White Sox accounted for eight runs on their three homers. Ponson has surrendered six home runs in 31 2/3 innings. He and Mussina have allowed a combined 13 homers in 69 2/3 innings.

Last night's blitz leaves only relievers B. J. Ryan and Buddy Groom with ERAs below 4.00. For the series, Orioles starters have surrendered 20 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings, a staggering 11.74 ERA.

"It looked like he had good stuff but he didn't get his location on his fastball," said Hargrove. "He had a good changeup. The three-run homer and the grand slam were back-breakers. He is a good competitor and he's still young. As he goes along, he learns something every time."

The next two games against the White Sox and Texas Rangers become pivotal to a short-handed staff as Jose Mercedes and Jason Johnson, pitchers who opened the season in minor-league camp, must assume an innings load.

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