Rays put deep bruise on Ponson

Orioles starter yields 3 of 4 Tampa homers in 7-4 loss to Rays

O's finally hit 2 of their own

0-3 pitcher denies arm strength is issue

April 16, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

If it isn't one thing, it's another.

The Orioles proved yesterday that they can hit the ball out of the ballpark once in a while, but it was the Tampa Bay Devil Rays who peppered the bleachers with enough baseballs to emerge with a 7-4 victory before 30,441 at Camden Yards.

Devil Rays sluggers Greg Vaughn and Fred McGriff greeted Orioles starter Sidney Ponson with back-to-back home runs in the first inning and Vaughn went deep again in the eighth to lead a four-homer attack that obscured another progressive performance by the struggling Orioles lineup.

Orioles hitters had managed one home run in their first 361 at-bats of the season, but reserve catcher Greg Myers launched a towering shot into the right-field bleachers with one out in the fourth, and Jerry Hairston added the club's third homer of the season later in the same inning to overcome the early, three-run deficit.

The comeback gave new life to Ponson, who strung together five scoreless innings after the opening barrage, but catcher John Flaherty put the Devil Rays back in front to stay with a two-run shot in the seventh.

Maybe it was just a garden-variety three-run game between two teams expected to finish at or near the bottom of the American League East standings, but there was no shortage of storylines on an Easter afternoon that went from glorious to gloomy over the course of the game.

The inconsistent performance of Ponson had to raise eyebrows. He struggled with his location and gave up three of the four home runs. He has now surrendered six in his three starts (17 2/3 innings) this season.

Manager Mike Hargrove was thrown out of the game for arguing balls and strikes after Melvin Mora was called out on a wide pitch to squelch an Orioles comeback attempt in the eighth inning.

Myers delivered three run-scoring hits in four at-bats to account for most of the Orioles' offensive production. He has appeared in just three games, but he is tied for the club lead with five RBIs and likely will show up as the designated hitter for tonight's series finale.

The Orioles clearly displayed greater offensive consistency over the weekend, but still are in danger of losing three of four games to one of the weakest teams in the majors.

"It's not all there yet," Hargrove said. "We've still got some guys who are struggling, but we've also got some guys who seem to be coming around."

Ponson has shown flashes of brilliance this year. He struck out 10 in his first start of the season, but he came up on the wrong end of the no-hitter by Boston right-hander Hideo Nomo. He struggled in his second start against the Red Sox and displayed inconsistent location and velocity during yesterday's game.

"He was a little out of whack [in the first inning]," Hargrove said. "He hung a curveball to Vaughn that he hit out of the ballpark and a changeup to McGriff, but he settled down until the two-run shot in the seventh inning. ... Obviously, the first eight pitches he threw weren't real good, but he battled and settled down and kept us in the game."

Ponson said he was not concerned about his arm strength - his fastball topped out at 97 mph - but he second-guessed himself on the location of the pitches that cost him the game.

"It's a tough loss," he said. "I had to battle and battle, then I left a pitch out over the plate for Flaherty and that's the ballgame. Everybody can hit that pitch. I could have hit that pitch."

The location of certain pitches became an issue for other reasons yesterday. Hargrove was ejected for the first time this year after he got into a protracted argument with plate umpire Jim Reynolds over the full-count pitch that ended the eighth inning.

Mora felt the ball was well off the plate and had words with Reynolds himself. It was the third time in the series that an Orioles player had complained openly about baseball's new strike zone. Cal Ripken and Jay Gibbons had words with Mike Everitt on the same subject Friday night.

"I'm really not going to say anything about the umpiring," Hargrove said. "It doesn't do you any good or anybody else any good. They are paid to do a good job, and they are good. Nobody's perfect. That's just the way it is."

Hargrove conceded the new strike zone might be having an impact on some of the less experienced players in the Orioles' lineup, but he would not use it as an excuse for the club's offensive problems through the first 12 games of the season.

"They're big-league players," Hargrove said. "That's the strike zone, and we'll adjust to it. I'm not going to say that's the reason we're hitting a buck eighty [actually .201] as a team."

Mora didn't complain bitterly either, but said players still are trying to figure out the parameters of the new strike zone. He knows it's supposed to be higher, but clearly expects the outside pitch to be called a little tighter.

"It's all around the big leagues," he said. "They just have to be consistent. That's the only way you're going to make the adjustment. When they start calling it away, down, in and high, it's hard."

It's also a challenge for the umpires, who have been asked to change the way they have called balls and strikes for years.

"It's a big change," veteran umpire Rocky Roe said before the start of the series, "but I don't think it's a big problem. Do I have it nailed down? No, but eventually everyone will get used to it. It's a work in progress."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: No TV/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Jason Johnson (0-0, 2.92) vs. Devil Rays' Ryan Rupe (0-1, 10.38)

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