Yankees 5, Orioles 2

By this point in the season, Sidney Ponson had hoped he might be halfway to 20 wins. Back in spring training, when the season held infinite promise, he would recite the year and name of the last Baltimore Orioles pitcher to reach that milestone -- Mike Boddicker, 1984 -- and brazenly vow he would be the next.

Instead, with the season's midpoint still two weeks away, Ponson is halfway to a far more disturbing personal milestone -- though one that is equally astonishing, in a mirror-image sort of way.

The Orioles' 5-2 loss to the New York Yankees on Thursday night brought Ponson his 10th loss of the season. Though he pitched brilliantly in long stretches, his two big mistakes were punished mercilessly, as Yankees superstars Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter crushed two-run homers.

A sellout crowd of 48,442 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards saw the home team fall to the Yankees for the eighth time in nine games this season. Overall, it was the Orioles' ninth loss in their past 11 games.

Ponson gave the Orioles seven solid innings -- the third time in his last four starts that he has gone that deep -- but failed to overcome the many errors, blunders and gaffes that took place around him, and thus failed to avoid his eighth consecutive loss.

After the game, Ponson consented to an interview with the Orioles' television rights-holders but declined to speak to other members of the media, despite being encouraged to do so by a team official. His manager and pitching coach praised his performance.

"He threw well tonight. He really did," Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "I'm sure he's disappointed he didn't get the win out of it. But . . . he had me encouraged."

"He's going to win a lot of games," said pitching coach Mark Wiley, "pitching the way he did tonight."

Hold a mirror up to Ponson's record, and you can imagine what this season could have been. Were the Orioles' ace 10-3 right now, instead of 3-10, the Orioles would be four games above .500 now, solidly in third place in the division and within striking distance of the Yankees' lead. Instead, they are in last place by percentage points at 29-39, the franchise's worst 68-game record since 1991.

The near-disaster that the Orioles' season has become is not entirely Ponson's fault, of course, and losses such as the one he suffered Thursday night -- when his defense betrayed him again and again, and his offense continued to make perplexing mistakes on the base paths -- make him look more like a victim than a perpetrator of the team's glaring problems.

For the second night in a row, the Orioles tempted fate by giving away extra outs and extra runs to a Yankees team that is expert at converting such mistakes into victories. The night before, the Orioles survived. This time, they did not.

For five innings, in fact, the Orioles treated first baseman Rafael Palmeiro's glove as if it were a magnetic force field that repelled incoming throws. Three times, Orioles fielders threw wildly past Palmeiro for errors, and in two of the cases it proved costly.

David Newhan's bat may have brought the Orioles two runs in the first inning -- with his second homer in six games with the team -- but his errant throw on Jeter's slow bouncer with two outs in the third led to a pair of Yankees runs when Rodriguez crushed an 0-1 slider to right. Two innings later, Ponson cost himself when he failed to make a play on Kenny Lofton's comebacker to the mound. He then compounded the problem by throwing the ball away. Lofton wound up on second base, and Jeter smashed a belt-high 0-2 fastball to center for another two-run homer.

The Yankees added a fifth run against reliever John Parrish in the seventh inning, when Bernie Williams's fly ball in shallow right bounced off second baseman Brian Roberts's glove as Roberts nearly collided with right fielder Jay Gibbons.

"When you make errors and give good teams that extra chance," Mazzilli said, "stuff like that is gonna happen."

Equally maddening is the Orioles' carelessness on the bases. Over the past two nights, the Orioles have gone for the cycle of base running mistakes, with outs at all four bases. On Wednesday night, they got runners thrown out at third and home. On Thursday night, Larry Bigbie got picked off first base by Yankees starter Javier Vazquez (8-5), and Roberts was thrown out at second by Lofton while trying to advance on a deep fly ball.

Orioles Notes: Still looking to bolster their pitching staff, which ranks last in the league in ERA, the Orioles are in talks with the Boston Red Sox regarding right-hander Ramiro Mendoza, according to team and league sources.

The Orioles dispatched scout Bruce Kison to watch Mendoza's start Thursday night for Class AAA Pawtucket, for whom Mendoza is currently on a rehabilitation assignment. . . .

Third baseman Melvin Mora (strained foot) was held out for a sixth straight game, but was available as a pinch hitter.

A sliding Jay Gibbons and off-balance Brian Roberts converge on a pop fly, but neither can make catch in 5-2 loss to the Yankees.