The Baltimore Orioles enjoyed a rare feel-good game tonight, delighting in the dominant pitching of 22-year-old Sidney Ponson and an unceremonious spanking of Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux. That the whole thing occurred without the participation of Albert Belle is open to interpretation.
Belle was benched for the first time this season during the Orioles' 6-2 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 47,428 at Turner Field.
"Albert Belle just didn't play. That's the only comment I'm going to make," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said. "I don't want to talk about Albert Belle. We just had a kid pitch an outstanding game."
A cynic would say that Belle had as much impact on this game as he has on most others, which is to say next to none. How did the Orioles (23-36) get along without Belle? They scored six runs, slightly higher than their average per game this season (5.34). They bashed 12 hits -- three of them by Jeff Conine, who replaced Belle in the cleanup spot and in right field -- which is also higher than the season average (9.52 per game).
They also got a dominant performance from Ponson (6-4), who was pitching for the first time since leaving the team on Tuesday to attend the funeral of his grandmother in Aruba. Ponson pitched perhaps his best game of the season, further establishing himself as the Orioles' ersatz number two starter, tossing a complete game while giving up only five hits and a walk.
In his last five starts, Ponson has a 3-1 record with a 2.84 earned run average and has gone at least seven innings four times.
"He has the pitches to be a premier starter, a number one," Miller said. "He's establishing all his pitches. He was pretty awesome."
Miller's decision to bench Belle came two days after Belle and Miller had a heated argument in the Orioles' dugout during a game at Florida. After Belle failed to run out a ground ball in the ninth inning of a 4-2 victory, Miller took him out of the game on a strategic double-switch.
According to a team source, Belle was not fined, and will be back in the lineup Saturday.
Before the game, Miller gave no reason for benching Belle, saying only that combined with Thursday's off day, "that's two days off for him, and hopefully he'll be fresh for [Saturday]. . . . I don't want to get into the whys and wheres."
Belle's consecutive-games-played streak, which had been the longest active streak in the majors, ended at 392. Although Miller said before the game that Belle would be available for pinch-hit duty, the situation never arose.
Maddux, whose 5-4 record and 4.64 ERA are incongruous with the four Cy Young Awards on his resume, was undone by his defense and a few too many fat pitches in the Orioles' five-run sixth. B.J. Surhoff crushed his 12th homer to lead off the inning, and also crushed a liner to the wall in right to end the inning, as the Orioles batted around.
In between, Will Clark lined a double to left field that Ryan Klesko botched with an ill-advised dive; shortstop Ozzie Guillen failed to make a play on Cal Ripken's chopper over the mound (Ripken was given a hit); and Guillen dropped a toss from second baseman Bret Boone on a double-play ball off the bat of Delino DeShields.
In six innings, Maddux was tagged with 10 hits, increasing his National League-leading total to 121. Opponents are hitting a staggering .331 off him.
Maddux was thoroughly outpitched by Ponson, who struck out six -- including Braves slugger Chipper Jones three times. Through the first seven innings, Ponson faced only three batters over the minimum, giving up a run on a suicide squeeze executed to perfection by Maddux.
Miller never even felt the need to get the bullpen warming up until Eddie Perez doubled to drive in Randall Simon with the Braves' second run. But Miller never needed to go to the bullpen, as Ponson retired the next three batters to get out of the inning.
And as Ponson strutted off the mound, game ball in hand, following the final out of the ninth, a stream of teammates filed out of the Orioles' dugout to shake his hand. The first player out of the dugout? It was Belle.
CAPTION: Albert Belle, right, sits next to hitting coach Terry Crowley during game that ended his streak of consecutive games at 392. It was longest active streak.
CAPTION: Cal Ripken is safe at second as ball eludes Ozzie Guillen, who is charged with error, during Orioles' five-run sixth.