Possible swan song is tough 3-2 loss

Ponson goes strong 7, but O's bats stay napping as Rays win 2nd in a row

July 24, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - After what could have been his last pitch as an Oriole last night, Sidney Ponson removed the glove from his left hand and cradled it under his arm. Walking briskly, he stared toward the bullpen and then tugged off his cap and snapped it in the air before disappearing into the Orioles' dugout.

Was this the last time Ponson will wear an Orioles uniform? That, and not what has happened to the team's once-vaunted offense, was the question of the night.

The Orioles were beaten by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 3-2, at Tropicana Field, falling to 50-46, four games over .500 for the first time since April 23. The Orioles' sixth loss in the past seven games, however, was no fault of the oft-criticized Ponson, who deserved a better fate in potentially his Orioles farewell.

His focus questioned for most of his eight seasons in an Orioles uniform, Ponson took the mound knowing that the Orioles had agreed to trade him to the San Diego Padres for first baseman Phil Nevin earlier in the day. But still Nevin had to waive his no-trade clause, leaving Ponson's start in limbo for much of yesterday. Contingency plans - bumping up Erik Bedard a day - apparently were discussed.

But when the Orioles' defense first took the field at approximately 6:30 p.m. after scoring a rare run, there was Ponson, standing tall on the mound, firing pitches to Sal Fasano. And when it came to discussing the trade and his start - easily his best since June 18, the day of his last win - there was Ponson, instructing the media to stay away.

"I am not going to talk to you guys in the second half," said Ponson, who pitched seven innings, allowing three earned runs while striking out four. "I told you that. You guys have your own way of saying things about me. You don't need my input to go ahead and talk [garbage] about me, so do whatever you want to do."

Ponson (7-9) pitched well, retiring the first eight Devil Rays before giving up a bases-empty homer to Alex Gonzalez. He then threw three scoreless innings before the last-place Devil Rays (34-64) put together three straight hits and a groundout in the seventh inning, leading to two runs and Ponson's 83rd loss as an Oriole.

Ponson's last pitch of the game - and perhaps of his Orioles career - was bounced to Miguel Tejada, who threw out Joey Gathright at first base to end the seventh inning

"Sidney pitched a pretty good game," said Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. "He pitched good enough to win."

In his pre-game address with the media, Mazzilli dismissed the trade speculation as "rumors, that's all they are." He expected Ponson to be focused. He expected him to throw strikes. And he expected him to go deep into the game and give a bullpen, depleted to the point where tomorrow's starter, Daniel Cabrera, was told to be available in relief, a badly needed break.

"He's a professional," Mazzilli said. "He's on this team and he has to go out there and pitch. That's his job."

Ponson, who has angered Orioles officials with off-the-field indiscretions, including two offseason arrests, met all of the criteria. The Orioles' offense, however, remained in a slumber that has forced a sense of urgency on today's game - as if a potential sweep by the lowly Devil Rays wasn't enough to get the Orioles' attention.

The Orioles are 3-6 on this 10-game road trip after winning the first two games in Seattle. They have lost 18 of their past 23 road games and are now 3 1/2 games behind first-place Boston in the American League East and 1 1/2 games ahead of fourth-place Toronto.

In six games this week, they have scored just 17 runs. Last night, the Orioles scored one in the first on Sammy Sosa's RBI single. They had three hits in the first off Tampa Bay prized rookie Scott Kazmir, teasing at an offensive outburst.

But after Sosa's hit, the Orioles got just one other hit until Tejada slammed a one-out homer off Devil Rays closer Danys Baez in the ninth, cutting the Devil Rays' lead to 3-2. The shortstop's 21st home run traveled 448 feet, bouncing off the back wall in left field on the fly. It is believed to be the first home run to hit there in Tropicana Field history, but that offered little consolation to the Orioles.

Baez got Sosa on a high fastball and then struck out pinch hitter Rafael Palmeiro on an offspeed pitch to end the game. It was Baez's 19th save. Kazmir improved to 5-7, allowing four hits, one run and striking out seven in seven innings.

"We're not hitting," said Mazzilli. "This road trip, we've lost three or four one-run games. We usually take care of that, but we're going through a period where we're not hitting."

Sosa said "good pitching beats good hitting, and that's what happened the last two games."

Minutes later, Ponson, dressed casually in jeans and a button-down shirt, strolled by Sosa's locker, exiting the Orioles' clubhouse possibly for the last time.

NOTE: Jay Gibbons was given the day off because of back spasms. "It's more sore than I expected, but it's nothing too serious," he said. "I'll take a day."

Orioles today

Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site, time: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Fla, 2:15 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Erik Bedard (5-1, 1.89) vs. Devil Rays' Casey Fossum (4-8, 4.01)

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