Indians pin 8-1 loss on Mercedes

Struggling Oriole yields 3 in first, sets up slam to fall to 0-3

O's waste big scoring bid

14-game winner in '00 cites weather in skid

April 18, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Bad news, bad weather and bad early pitching followed the Cleveland Indians into Camden Yards last night. The combination handed the Orioles their worst day of a young season for reasons extending beyond an unsightly 8-1 loss before a small, early-exiting crowd of 28,679.

Big-swinging Indians third baseman Russell Branyan made the outcome obvious with a sixth-inning grand slam into the visitors' bullpen off left-handed reliever B. J. Ryan. But a telling first inning by Orioles starter Jose Mercedes (0-3) and his inopportune offense gave away the plot early. Even before, news that No. 2 starting pitcher Sidney Ponson had been placed on the 15-day disabled list left the night with a bad aftertaste.

Five days after allowing the Boston Red Sox 10 hits in his final 1 1/3 innings, Mercedes trailed the Indians after only six hitters. Able to retire the game's first two hitters, he walked two during the three-run rally, pitched ably for four innings, then relapsed during the telling sixth.

"It's not like I'm getting hit so bad over and over and over. It happened in that one inning," said Mercedes, who lost the sensation in his right hand as well as his third decision in as many starts. "What can I do except to keep pitching and avoid those kind of innings? This time of year the weather is right there. You've got to deal with it."

Hargrove didn't seethe over the loss. Nor did he overly fret about Mercedes. His team managed only four hits against three Indians pitchers and squandered its best chance early.

"I think [Mercedes'] outing this time was better than last time in Boston," Hargrove said. "I'll wait to pass judgment on all that until we see Jose's next outing. I'm not making excuses. Obviously, he struggled. But I hesitate to categorize it like his last start in Boston. The results are the same, but I want to believe it was for different reasons."

His team now 6-8, Hargrove faces the first challenge to his staff's integrity because of Mercedes' and Ponson's shared troubles.

Mercedes and Ponson were the Orioles' only arbitration-eligible players last winter. Ponson settled for $2.1 million the night before he was scheduled to depart for his Phoenix hearing. Mercedes went before a three-man panel only to be beaten by the Orioles and receive a $2.75 million salary. Ponson did not win a game all spring while Mercedes endured a curious camp in which he was surprised not to receive a chance to challenge for the Opening Day start. Mercedes then cited superstition in abruptly requesting the fourth spot in the rotation over the third.

The Orioles are 6-2 when Pat Hentgen, Jason Johnson and Chuck McElroy start and 0-6 with an 8.10 ERA behind Ponson and Mercedes. Ponson was merely the Orioles' best pitcher last September. Mercedes was the American League's winningest pitcher during last season's second half.

By landing on the disabled list, Ponson at least confirmed suspicions about the root of his problems. He suffered diminished velocity in last Sunday's start against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays while surrendering three home runs.

Mercedes is a more complex riddle. In his previous start, Mercedes retired his first nine hitters then collapsed once forced to work from the stretch. He lasted only 4 1/3 innings in an 8-2 loss, gesturing to Fenway Park fans and tossing coolers on his way to the clubhouse. (The club fined him earlier this week and last night Mercedes assured he would not repeat his Fenway outburst.)

Last night's game resurrected the image of Mercedes as vulnerable with runners on base. After getting the first two batters he faced, Mercedes allowed a single to Roberto Alomar and the inning detonated. Consecutive walks to Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks loaded the bases. Mercedes thought he had struck out Jim Thome one pitch before the first baseman grounded a two-run single. Wil Cordero reached on a swinging bunt, scoring Burks for a 3-0 lead.

"How I got myself in trouble wasn't good at all. But at the same time, it wasn't like I did a lot of stuff. It was a two-out single. The cold weather didn't help at all. I'm not making excuses. But it affects your hands ... everything. I got through the next four innings OK," Mercedes said.

Trying to win consecutive games for the first time this season, the Orioles challenged Indians starter Dave Burba in the bottom of the first inning by loading the bases with one out. They were denied when Cal Ripken grounded sharply into a 5-4-3 double play.

"We really missed a golden opportunity," Hargrove said. "Had we been able to score there, the course of the game might have changed."

"It was a huge play," agreed Burba. "You make one mistake and it's a 4-0 ballgame [actually 4-3]. Fortunately, I was able to make a good pitch in that situation and get the ground ball at Russell."

The missed chance hurt even more when first baseman Chris Richard led off the second inning with his first home run to make it a 3-1 game.

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