Expos fill in O's blank

Rookie Armas seals sweep, 1-0, as quiet attack turns silent

Ponson gem again wasted

Skid at 5, O's have led 2 inn. last 4 games

June 05, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

MONTREAL - Sidney Ponson presented the Orioles with a stunning complete game yesterday that included seven shutout innings, a heavy dose of poise and a modified delivery that has transformed a pitcher vulnerable against home runs to one who now hints at consistency.

In return, Ponson(3-3) received a 1-0 loss to the Montreal Expos and hard-throwing rookie Tony Armas (1-2), who pitched eight innings against the Orioles' slumping lineup before watching closer Steve Kline finish a three-game sweep before15,181 at Olympic Stadium.

Ponson pitched brilliantly except for a three-batter stretch that culminated in Lee Stevens' two-out single that broke a scoreless game in the eighth inning. But during what is now afive-game losing streak, the Orioles' offense has extended few second chances.

"If I can pitch every time out like that, I'll take it any day," Ponson said.

The Orioles - at23-31 only two games ahead of last season's pace - have led for a total of two innings in their past four games. Never mind opponents also haven't produced anything more than a two-run inning during the skid. The rotation has offered 15 quality starts and a 3.42 ERA in the past 19 games but received onlyfive victories in that span. Those numbers don't lie. They scream.

Ponson thought his performance was better than an April 16 shutout against the Minnesota Twins. "I used both sides of the plate, up, down, in, away, changeups, curveballs. I'm getting in a groove. Hopefully, I'll stay in this groove and see what happens."

The loss dropped the Orioles to 12-26 since April 22 and left them with their 20th consecutive defeat in Canada, including six to the Expos at Olympic Stadium. Only one-third into the season, the Orioles are riding theirfifth losing streak of four games or more.

Armas is the son of the former major-league outfielder by the same name. Armas' father and Orioles stand-in manager Jeff Newman were traded together by the Oakland Athletics to the Boston Red Sox in 1983 for third baseman Carney Lansford.

However, the Orioles' familiarity with the younger Armas ended there. He pounded their right-handed hitters with a hard slider and fastball, holding them 2-for-12 with six strikeouts, then used his fastball and changeup against left-handers, who were1-for-15.

"He pitched well and we didn't exactly put a lot of pressure on him. We didn't create many situations and when we did, we couldn't get the big hit," said left fielder B. J. Surhoff, who grounded out with the tying run on third to end the game.

Armas' first major-league win came in his fifth career start and extended a run to five games in which the Orioles failed to beat four starters who have spent significant time this season in the minor leagues.

"They're in the big leagues for a reason - because they proved themselves down there or Montreal had some injuries and they had to bring guys up. They don't bring somebody up who's not ready to be here," Newman said. "In today's game, [Armas] made pitches and Sidney made pitches. The last week is not as bad as it was three weeks ago or two weeks ago. We're doing some things right but we didn't score enough runs to win."

Ponson's was the latest in a number of quality starts. Nagging questions about the integrity of a renovated bullpen or the health of the starting rotation have yielded to concerns about a veteran lineup.

Does a slump become a trend for a veteran offense that has averaged fewer than 3.7 runs in the past 22 games? Is a lineup that lacks a home run from its No. 5 hitter fully functional?

Standing in for manager Mike Hargrove, who rejoins the team today in New York after attending his son's high school graduation, Newman was not about to offer sweeping judgments.

"There are three parts to the game - pitching, defense and hitting. And to win, you've got to put two of them together," he said, adding, "It's just one of those things. Most of the time you don't have all three. We saw good pitchers today. Good pitching will always shut down good hitting. That's what you saw today. It came down to the ninth hour. They scored a run and we didn't."

While the front office apparently still considers which course to take with its veteran team, the Orioles haven't won any of their past seven road series and have fallen to a major league-worst 9-22 on the road, including 1-10 in one-run games.

Typically, such consistent misadventures are a sign of unsatisfactory bullpen and defense, but neither could be blamed for this sweep. The Orioles were limited to seven runs by Carl Pavano, T. J. Tucker, Armas and a bullpen that worked seven scoreless innings.

Newman called Ponson's performance "fantastic," an apt description given the23-year-old's eight strikeouts to tie a career high and ability to space three hits through seven innings.

"He pitched his tail off," Newman said. "He pitched well enough to definitely deserve a win. That was major-league pitching out there today ... quality major-league pitching, actually."

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