The Baltimore Orioles' bullpen did not blow today's 11-6 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays; it never got the chance. But it still played a major part in the defeat, and not just in the three home runs given up by reliever Rocky Coppinger that were part of a record six hit by an opposing team at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Two weeks' worth of bullpen blowups, including two here against the Blue Jays this week and three more against them last week in Toronto, had a psychological effect on the team, Manager Ray Miller said. And today it showed in the pitching of Sidney Ponson, who, in trying to rescue the bullpen, instead started the Orioles to one of their soundest defeats of the season.
"That was an old-fashioned butt-whipping," Miller said.
Ponson, 22, a right-hander brimming with confidence, swore he wasn't trying to cover for the bullpen. "I believe in those guys," he said. But Miller said he saw it in Ponson's demeanor, just as he has seen it in Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson during this devastating stretch -- six blown saves and eight one-run losses in a span of 15 games.
"I was talking to [Ponson] between every inning about that, trying to calm him down," Miller said. "It's not something that's conscious, but in the back of your mind you think, `I can go the distance today and give everybody [in the bullpen] a day off.' You try to be perfect on every pitch. I see it in a lot of our guys."
Perhaps that explains why, on a 3-2 pitch to former Oriole Willis Otanez with a runner on first in the second inning, instead of going after Otanez, Ponson tried to throw a super-wicked side-armed slider. The pitch hung in the air long enough for Otanez to smash it for one of his two home runs..
"He tried to drop down and embarrass Otanez," Miller said, "and [Otanez] hit it out of the park."
Instead of going right after hitters with his 95 mph fastball to get ahead in the count, Ponson threw more first-pitch breaking balls, many of which missed the plate. He fell behind 2-0 eight times today, and those eight batters went 4 for 6 with a home run, a walk and a sacrifice fly.
"After a while," said Ponson (7-6), "when you're 2-0 and 3-0 to everybody, you have to lay one in there. They beat my brains in."
A little more than two weeks ago, the Orioles entered a stretch of 16 straight games against the three teams that were ahead of them in the American League East, fancying themselves as on the verge of entering the race.
Instead, with today's loss the Orioles ended that 16-game stretch with a 3-13 record, falling from 8 1/2 games out of the lead to 17 games out. The Orioles (34-50) have lost 13 of 15, and are 16 games below .500 for the first time this season.
"The talent level that they've got and the money that they've spent, I, just like everybody else, thought they would be a contender," said Toronto Manager Jim Fregosi, whose team swept the Orioles for the second time in 10 days and won the season series, 11-1.
The Orioles had 14 hits -- four by rookie Jerry Hairston -- but only two were home runs. Harold Baines and Albert Belle hit them to lead off innings.
Belle's homer started the ninth, but it merely cut Toronto's lead to five runs. By then, only about half the announced crowd of 41,738 remained in the stadium. He had several chances earlier to help the Orioles, but could not.
Belle grounded into a double play with the bases loaded in the first inning. (He is 0 for 6 this season with the bases loaded). With two runners on in the sixth, he flied out to center field.
Belle also didn't catch Homer Bush's sinking liner in the second inning, breaking the wrong way and letting it fall in for a single. Belle also failed to throw out Shannon Stewart at the plate on Shawn Green's sacrifice fly in the same inning, when a good throw would have nailed him.
Orioles Notes: Miller said he would return to the original bullpen setup, with Mike Timlin again the sole closer. "I'm going to try to make sure everyone understands where I want to use them," Miller said. "We'll use them in that role, and sink or swim."
Miller said Gabe Molina and Jesse Orosco will be setup men, and Molina, Doug Johns, Arthur Rhodes and Scott Kamieniecki will work in middle relief.
Miller also said he will try to limit Timlin to the ninth inning. The bullpen's woes began in two losses in late April and early May in which Miller brought Timlin in with two outs in the eighth, and Timlin gave up the winning run.
"I probably put a little bit of strain on Timlin by bringing him in with two outs in the eighth," Miller said. "But under those circumstances, one run down, you're trying to give yourself a shot to win in the ninth."
Timlin said he welcomed the more defined role.
"I understand sometimes you have to bring in your closer in the eighth," Timlin said. "But if you look around baseball, not too many teams are doing that very regularly." . . .
The Orioles recalled catcher Lenny Webster from Class AAA Rochester, where he had been playing on a rehabilitation assignment, but did not activate him. The Orioles have been attempting to trade him, with Pittsburgh and Los Angeles showing the most interest. "Hopefully something will happen before the break, so I'll know what my future holds," Webster said. "Right now, I'm just here." . . . The Orioles agreed to terms with Quincy Ascencion, 16, an outfielder from Aruba, who worked out at Camden Yards before today's game. . . . Center fielder Brady Anderson left the game in the seventh inning with mild soreness in his hamstring. He is day-to-day. . . . Baines's homer was his 219th as a designated hitter, tying him with Don Baylor for most all-time by a designated hitter.
Data: Orioles at Philadelphia Phillies, today at 7:35 p.m., Saturday at 7:05 p.m., Sunday at 1:35 p.m.
TV: WBDC-50, WJZ-13.
Radio: WTOP-1500, WBAL-1090, WTOP-FM-107.7 and WMJS-FM-92.7.
Records: Orioles 34-50; Phillies 45-38.
Pitchers: Today -- Orioles RHP Juan Guzman (4-6, 4.39) vs. RHP Curt Schilling (12-4, 3.20); Saturday -- Orioles RHP Mike Mussina (10-4, 3.61) vs. RHP Paul Byrd (11-4, 3.72); Sunday -- Orioles RHP Scott Erickson (3-8, 6.34) vs. RHP Chad Ogea (4-8, 5.29).
CAPTION: Orioles starter Sidney Ponson is the picture of dejection after giving up seven runs and 10 hits against Blue Jays.
CAPTION: Shannon Stewart slides in home ahead of tag by Orioles catcher Mike Figga to score on sacrifice fly. Stewart also hit one of Toronto's six home runs.