Indians pin 8-1 loss on Mercedes

Struggling Oriole yields 3 runs in first, sets up slam in 6th

He, Ponson a combined 0-6

Pitching from stretch ails 14-game winner


A conspiracy of bad news, bad weather and bad pitching accompanied the Cleveland Indians into Camden Yards last night. The combination left the Orioles with their worst day of a young season for reasons that extended beyond an unsightly 8-1 loss.

Even before big-swinging Indians third baseman Russell Branyan made the outcome obvious with a sixth-inning grand slam into the visitors' bullpen, the Orioles and a crowd of 28,679 watched starting pitcher Jose Mercedes implode for a second consecutive start.

Even before Mercedes threw a pitch, the Orioles learned that another starter, Sidney Ponson, would be lost for the rest of the month with tendinitis in his right elbow. The club reacted by promoting Chad Paronto from Rochester and making the season's first adjustment to the rotation.

Mercedes trailed after only six hitters and was all but buried by a three-run first inning. He walked two during a three-run rally, pitched ably for four innings, then relapsed during a telling sixth.

Now 6-8, manager Mike Hargrove faces the first challenge to his staff's integrity because of Mercedes' and Ponson's shared troubles. The two shared similar contract status after last season and have stumbled together to start the season. At last December's winter meetings they were projected to compete for an Opening Day start, the 14-game winner Mercedes ranked the favorite. Instead, they became arbitration twins during spring training and the staff's biggest riddles since.

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 hearing. Mercedes went all the way before a three-man panel only to be beaten by the club and receive a $2.75 million salary.

Ponson did not win a game all spring while Mercedes endured a curious camp in which he never received an opportunity 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 began by retiring his first nine hitters then collapsing 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.

"I think his 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."

Last night resurrected the image of Mercedes being vulnerable with runners on base. After getting the first two batters he faced, Mercedes allowed a single to former Oriole Roberto Alomar and the inning detonated. Consecutive walks to Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks loaded the bases.

A visit from pitching coach Mark Wiley couldn't prevent Mercedes (0-3) from allowing a ground single to Jim Thome that scored two runs. To add insult to the rally, Wil Cordero reached on a swinging bunt to third base, scoring Burks for a 3-0 lead.

"How I got myself in trouble wasn't good at all," Mercedes said. "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."

Trying to win consecutive games for the first time this season, the Orioles challenged Indians starting pitcher 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," Burba agreed. "You make one mistake and it's a 4-0 ballgame [actually 4-3]. Fortunately for me and the Indians, 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.

Burba (1-1) steamrolled after taking damage from Richard. He set down his next 12 hitters and 15 of the next 16 hitters faced before consecutive soft singles leading off the seventh inning caused him to give way to sidearming right-hander Rick Reed.

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