In a very real way, today's 5-2 loss to the Seattle Mariners ended the meaningful portion of the Baltimore Orioles' season. This was to be the critical week the Orioles would earn the right to keep the team intact for a stretch run. Instead, today's loss was their fourth in five games.

"Whatever happens, we as a group can't get caught up in the future decisions," said Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken. "Regardless of what happened in the first half . . . we have to go out there and try to win games."

While the Orioles (46-57) appear to be going nowhere -- they began the day 9 1/2 games out of wild-card contention -- Ripken today put the finishing touches on one of the most impressive months of his 19-year career.

Although Ripken remained stuck on 399 career homers for the fifth straight game, he went 2 for 4 with an RBI double and a single, giving him 2,968 career hits. For July, he hit .413 with 5 homers, 10 doubles and 17 RBI.

"It's safe to say I'm feeling as good at the plate now as I have at any other point in my career," Ripken said. "I almost hesitate to talk about it because I don't want to jinx it. It's a good feeling."

A sellout crowd of 45,139 saw the Mariners break a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning when Tom Lampkin doubled off Orioles starter Sidney Ponson (9-7), scoring Edgar Martinez, who also had doubled. Ponson gathered himself in time to retire John Mabry on a grounder for the second out of the inning, but then Russ Davis smacked a fastball up the middle to score Lampkin.

After a dominant June in which he went 2-1 with a 2.68 ERA and two complete games, Ponson has slipped to 2-2 with a 5.40 ERA in July.

Ponson "might be wearing down a little bit," said Orioles Manager Ray Miller. "He's pitched pretty well for us, and he's a young kid. His velocity was down a little bit today. . . . This is probably more than he's ever pitched [in a season]. I might back him off a little, have him miss one start along the line and try to freshen him up."

Partly because he throws so hard and pitches so fearlessly, Ponson has given up 23 homers this season -- third-most in the American League -- including solo homers today to Ken Griffey Jr., his 34th, and Mabry.

"I basically [stunk]," Ponson said. "Just a bad outing."

Left-hander Doug Johns entered in the seventh, which featured the rare sight of a runner at second scoring on an RBI groundout. Brian Hunter drew a leadoff walk off Johns, went to second on David Bell's sacrifice and scored on Griffey's ground ball to first base. With Johns paying almost no attention to him at second, Hunter had a huge lead, and Orioles first baseman Will Clark had little choice but to let Hunter score.

With left-hander Jamie Moyer on the mound for Seattle and with center fielder-leadoff hitter Brady Anderson (ankle) out of the lineup for the second straight game, Miller employed one of his most creative lineups of the season, with Rich Amaral batting leadoff and Ripken in the fifth spot for the first time all season.

Albert Belle and Ripken smacked back-to-back doubles to lead off the second, and Ripken later scored on Charles Johnson's two-out single to center, giving the Orioles a 2-0 lead. But the Orioles did not advance a runner to second against Moyer (10-5) the rest of the game.

Sixteen of the 24 outs recorded by Moyer came on fly balls to the outfield, several of which might have been home runs in the Mariners' old home, the Kingdome. Griffey helped Moyer in the eighth with a Willie Mays-style, over-the-shoulder catch in deep center to rob Mike Bordick of extra bases.