ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., April 14 -- Baltimore Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli asked starter Sidney Ponson for a strong effort Thursday to protect a bullpen that had pitched eight innings combined in the first two games of the series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Mazzilli also was likely looking ahead to Friday's start of a three-game series against the New York Yankees, when a rested bullpen might be critical.
With Ponson taking the mound, a sweep of the Devil Rays seemed possible, almost probable. Taking all three would have given the Orioles five wins on the six-game road trip and perhaps ample momentum heading into the home series against the Yankees.
Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson wipes his head as he struggles during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays Thursday night.
(Chris O'Meara - AP)
Ponson was poor from the start in a 12-7 loss at Tropicana Field. Eight of his first nine pitches were balls. He walked the first two batters, Carl Crawford and Julio Lugo, both of whom scored in a three-run first.
"It didn't set the tone," Mazzilli said. "I didn't think he was mixing his pitches and he was getting behind."
Ponson gave up two more runs in the third and the game imploded in the fourth. Ponson yielded a double to Charles Johnson and a single to Nick Green to start the inning. Crawford sent a hanging curveball over the right-center field wall to give the Devil Rays an 8-3 lead.
"The home run from Crawford hurt," Mazzilli said. "It was a big point in the game."
Ponson's night ended after he walked the next hitter. His line: three innings, seven hits, nine earned runs. His ERA is now a hefty 13.50.
"I straight up pitched really bad today," Ponson said. "I'm not going to make any excuses. I just couldn't throw strikes. It's not working. I tried to battle through it. I couldn't go deep into the game to battle through it."
Rick Bauer followed Ponson and allowed three runs and five hits in the fourth inning. Eleven Tampa Bay hitters went to the plate in the fourth. Everybody in the lineup reached base in the inning except Aubrey Huff. Johnson had two hits, a double and single, in the fourth. Seven Devil Rays scored.
Tampa Bay starter Rob Bell was the winning pitcher despite allowing five runs -- four earned -- in just six innings.
Had Bauer kept the Devil Rays from scoring again in that inning, perhaps the Orioles could have won the game. They scored two runs in the fifth and two runs in the seventh to make the score 12-7.
Bauer appeared rusty, which is to be expected since had not pitched since April 6. He settled down in the fifth and six innings.
"Once I saw a few batters I was fine," Bauer said. "I didn't think the pitches I missed with were pretty bad. Once I got locked in I felt pretty good. I never sat that long without throwing."
Despite the blowout loss, the Orioles had a successful road trip. They took two of three games in New York, in addition to the series win against the Devil Rays.
"I think it was great," third baseman Melvin Mora said. "We did everything. We won four out of six, which is pretty good for us."
Prior to Tuesday's game, Mazzilli implored his team not to let up after the two wins against the Yankees. In the empty and cavernous Tropicana Field, an atmosphere quite unlike the one at Yankee Stadium was expected. The three games in New York drew a total of 140,200 fans. Only 29,586 fans attended the three-game series against the Devil Rays.
"When you leave New York, you have to keep that intensity level," Mazzilli told them.
The team responded in every game except Thursday. But even then the Orioles handed Ponson the lead in the first inning with an RBI single by Mora, scoring Brian Roberts.
Mora tied the game at 3 in the third with a two-run home run, his first of the year. The third baseman had three hits -- a single, double and triple -- which put his average above .200 for the first time since Opening Day.
"I found my swing," Mora said. "I have to keep it going."
For Ponson, the disgruntled ace, it is time to get it going.