The battles that truly matter for the Baltimore Orioles these days are being waged in center field, where rookie Eugene Kingsale is auditioning for a job; in the baseball record books, where Cal Ripken is auditioning for inclusion in the 3,000-hit club; and in the wounded psyche of young Sidney Ponson, who, like all 22-year-olds, knows everything.
There was significant progress made on all three fronts tonight in a 5-4 victory over the Seattle Mariners in 10 innings. The game ended with one out in the bottom of the 10th when Mariners closer Jose Mesa fielded Jeff Conine's double-play grounder but threw wildly past second base, allowing B.J. Surhoff to come home with the winning run.
The victory completed a four-game sweep and extended the Orioles' winning streak to seven games, tying a season-high. Rookie left-hander B.J. Ryan (1-0), who struck out Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Tom Lampkin in an impressive 1 1/3-inning stint, got his first major league victory.
Ripken drove in the Orioles' first three runs with a two-run homer in the second inning, the 17th of this season and 401st of his career, and a bases-loaded, line-drive sacrifice fly to center in the sixth, as the Orioles built a 4-2 lead. Ripken needs 18 hits for 3,000.
But David Bell hit a two-run homer off Orioles closer Mike Timlin with one out in the ninth to send the game into extra innings and give Timlin his first blown save since July 1.
"This game had a little bit of everything," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said.
Kingsale's third hit of the game, a drag-bunt single past Mesa, put the go-ahead run on base in the Orioles' ninth. But after Kingsale advanced to second on Jerry Hairston's sacrifice and to third on pinch hitter Derrick May's ground out, Mike Bordick grounded to third to end the inning.
Ponson gave up only two runs over 6 1/3 innings, continuing a patter of strong pitching by Orioles starters, who are 4-0 with a 1.76 earned run average over the last seven games. His performance also validated an organizational decision to go easy on his prized arm this month, a decision Ponson resisted.
After Ponson went 0-4 with a 6.90 ERA in his previous five starts, the Orioles decided to skip his turn in the rotation one time in order to "freshen up" his arm, as Miller put it. But Ponson did not take the news very well.
"For whatever reason, he thinks we were punishing him," Miller said. "Just immaturity, I guess."
In what has become a familiar routine, Ponson greeted pitching coach Bruce Kison during a trip to the mound in the sixth inning with open contempt -- slumped shoulders and a disgusted pivot. And when Miller came to the mound to hook Ponson in the seventh, Ponson stared off into space and handed the ball over wordlessly.
"He doesn't know as much about himself or about life as he thinks he does," Miller said. ". . . He needs better body language on the mound. I don't just mean reacting to being pulled or to the [pitching] coach going out to the mound, but in his reaction when things go wrong."
However, after the game, Ponson admitted, "I felt stronger than I did in my last couple of starts."
Kingsale, Ponson's Aruban compatriot, has other parts of the game to learn about. A relatively weak hitter, Kingsale is batting .480 (12 for 25) in his last seven games, but a glaring lack of instincts on the base paths has negated much of that otherwise encouraging progress.
Tonight, Kingsale was doubled off second base on Hairston's liner to left in the second inning, the second time in two weeks that has happened to Kingsale. He has also been picked off first base once and caught stealing twice since being called up Aug. 29.
"Those are the little things I have to be aware of," Kingsale said.
"We have to put a leash on him on the bases," Miller said. "But those are mistakes of aggression."
Orioles Notes: With 17 homers this season in 310 at bats, Ripken's home run ratio (one every 18.2 at bats) is the best of his career, and almost 50 percent better than his career average of one every 27.2 at bats entering this season. . . . Charles Johnson's run-scoring double in the seventh was his first RBI since Aug. 23. . . .
Griffey was 1 for 5 with a triple tonight, and finished 2 for 14 with no RBI in the series.