ARLINGTON — ARLINGTON, Texas - The Texas Rangers doled out keepsake after keepsake to Cal Ripken yesterday, beginning with a ceremony to retire his locker in the visitors' clubhouse and ending with a classic 11-pitch at-bat that almost prevented a struggling team from a horrible end.
But the Orioles responded by offering the Rangers opportunity after opportunity until they rallied for two unearned runs in the eighth inning to beat the slumping vis itors, 8-7, before 35,517 at The Ballpark in Arlington.
The loss deepened a slide that has seen the Orioles lose 15 of their last 18 games to fall 15 games below .500 (42-57).
The Orioles blew leads of 5-1 and 7-6 because their defense couldn't support either. With none on and two outs in the eighth inning, the Rangers rallied against Mike Trombley on Ruben Sierra's single and left fielder Mike Kinkade's misplay of Gabe Kapler's hooking line drive.
Kinkade's error allowed the Rangers their second unearned run of the game and deprived starting pitcher Sidney Ponson of a sloppy but much-needed victory. It also reinforced the perception of the Orioles as a fraying team.
The final collapse occurred when Buddy Groom allowed right fielder Ricky Ledee to double over third base past would-be hero Ripken with a two-out double to score Kapler. A day after surrending nine two-out runs to the Anaheim Angels, including seven after two were out with none on, the Orioles committed the same crime to reach their low point of the season.
Until the Orioles' second error of the game, they stood to win with offense, some thing they have rarely done this month. Instead, they wasted 12 hits and a credible effort from starting pitcher Sidney Ponson.
Ripken's eighth-inning single off Rangers reliever Mike Vanafro became the catalyst to a two-run rally that lifted the Orioles to a 6-5 lead that, had it stood, would have been the Orioles' first victory in 55 games when trailing after seven innings.
Defined in the first half as over achievers who got the most from their inexperienced parts, the Orioles now rank as the league's second-worst defensive team. They have committed 81 errors in 99 games, leaving their pitching staff with 50 unearned runs, second-most to the hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays who rapidly are becoming their closest measuring stick.
Ponson cruised until Rangers third baseman Mike Lamb smashed a line drive at Gibbons with one out in the sixth inning. Gibbons' bat has forced him into the lineup but his glove remains a variable within a lineup that has become shaky defensively. For the second time in three games, Gibbons froze on a fly ball that bounced over his head for extra bases. In this case, Lamb was awarded a double on a play that so infuriated Ponson that pitching coach Mark Wiley went to the mound to calm him.
Ponson needed several minutes to compose himself but what followed only continued his simmer.
Alex Rodriguez singled to score two runs to make it a 5-3 game. This time, catcher Fernando Lunar rushed to the mound to reassure his pitcher while the bullpen swung into high gear.
When Ponson got Ivan Rodriguez to ground to short, it appeared Ponson would make his escape with a double play. However, second baseman Jerry Hairston short-hopped the relay past first baseman Jeff Conine to give Alex Rodriguez the inning's third run, this one unearned. Rodriguez was in scoring position only because he stole second base against a distracted Ponson.
The Orioles began the season with defense as their constant. However, the quality has gradually eroded as rookie shortstop Brian Roberts, Gibbons and Hairston have wrestled with inconsistency.
Lacking the power to overcome unearned runs, the Orioles have become vulnerable in close games due to defense and bullpen. They are 1-7 in games decided by one or two runs this month.
The Orioles attacked Rangers starter Rick Helling in the second inning when Gibbons used an inside-out swing to hit his 15th home run to the opposite field. At The Ballpark in Arlington, such feats are nothing less than remarkable given a 14-foot scoreboard.
The Orioles kept after Helling when the Rangers used Ruben Sierra's sacrifice fly to pull within 2-1. Despite a base-running mistake by Melvin Mora, the Orioles scored two more runs on Conine's single and a double ripped into the right-field corner by Gibbons.
Roberts pressed the lead to 5-1 in the fourth inning with a two-out single.
Ponson appeared on his way to his first win since June 28, but the vagaries common to struggling teams resurfaced, leaving Ponson to smolder as his lead dwindled.
Allowed to return to the seventh inning with a 5-4 lead, Ponson would leave the field trailing with his cap in his right hand.
Consecutive one-out doubles by the bottom of the Rangers' batting order, right fielder Ricky Ledee and second baseman Michael Young, tied the game, 5-5. Wiley made another mound visit to settle Ponson but could only watch as Mike Lamb singled home Young for the go-ahead run.
Conine nearly gave the Orioles another lead against Rangers left-handed reliever Mike Venafro but was denied by center fielder Gabe Kapler's leaping catch above the center-field fence. What would have been a two-run homer only became another frustration. Stunned, Conine stood in the middle of the diamond as Chris Richard scrambled back to first base.
The five-run hurdle has become a massive one to the Orioles. Entering last night, they had gone 16 games without scoring six or more runs. Against the Rangers, who average 5.3 runs per game but usually give up more, the deficiency is usually costly.