Yankees 5, Orioles 2

-- While the New York Yankees play in a highly contested pennant race, the third-place Baltimore Orioles are in a high-stakes, multimillion dollar dash to the finish with veteran Rafael Palmeiro.

Palmeiro had three hits, including a home run, in Baltimore's 5-2 loss to the Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, in what is likely his final month as an Oriole. Palmeiro, who on Saturday started as the designated hitter in consecutive games for the first time all year, watches Jay Gibbons play first base because playing the likely future Hall of Famer in the field could cost Baltimore millions.

Palmeiro, who will turn 40 on Sept. 24, has a $4.5 million option for next season that kicks in if he plays 140 games in the field. He needs to play first base in 18 of the team's final 22 games to trigger the option. But it's becoming apparent the Orioles have no such plan. He's played first base once in the past five games.

"They haven't told me anything," Palmeiro said in Spanish. "I do what they tell me."

Meantime, Sidney Ponson delivered what he called perhaps the best outing of his career, a two-hit shutout last week against the Yankees. He did not equal that performance on Saturday, though he pitched well at times.

The Yankees took a 2-0 lead on singles by John Olerud and Alex Rodriguez, but were unable to mount much else against Ponson -- who induced three double plays to end rallies in the fourth, fifth and seventh innings -- until the eighth inning. A single by Derek Jeter, a double by Gary Sheffield and a groundout by Bernie Williams added three more runs against Ponson, who allowed just three earned runs in seven innings but took his 14th loss.

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, who was thought by many to be finished after shoulder surgery made him miss the 2003 season, has become the Yankees' most trusted starter, allowing just one run in seven innings and is 8-0 this the year. It is not a blazing fastball that powers Hernandez anymore. Instead the Cuban relies on deception.

In the third with Palmeiro at first, Hernandez threw a 78-mph slider that fooled Javy Lopez. The Baltimore catcher was caught off guard, and with a mighty whiff his bat flew in front of the Yankees dugout. An inning later the same slider struck out Miguel Tejada with the bases loaded and two outs. In the sixth, the crowd gasped when Hernandez threw a 55-mph curveball to Palmeiro. Lopez seemed particularly perplexed by Hernandez, striking out three times against him.

"El Duque always comes up big when they need him," Palmeiro said.

Palmeiro, who also singled against Hernandez, seemed to be the only Oriole to solve the right-hander. In the ninth, Palmeiro also singled against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who pitched a scoreless inning for his 47th save in 50 chances.

The Orioles' clandestine plan with Palmeiro threatens to turn what had once been a beautiful marriage into a messy divorce. Palmeiro has spent six of his 16 seasons with the Orioles and has hit 199 of his 520 home runs with Baltimore. But publicly Palmeiro seems unfazed that his time here may be ending.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "I'll do what I can here."

Palmeiro's numbers this season declined sharply. Unless he hits three home runs in his final 22 games, he will end a streak of 13 seasons with 20 or more. After 38 home runs last year with Texas, Palmeiro has just 17 and a .257 average this season.

"It's been a difficult year," Palmeiro said, "not only for me but for the team."

Orioles Notes: B.J. Surhoff's strikeout in the ninth inning sparked a confrontation between Orioles third base coach Tom Trebelhorn and Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. The two argued for several minutes after the game. Trebelhorn also spoke with Yankees Manager Joe Torre.

"Mr. Posada was, let's see, incorrect I guess in assuming I was giving away location on pitches," Trebelhorn said. "I did nothing. He made an issue of it in a way I thought was disrespectful. I have no clue what . . . he was talking about."

Trebelhorn said that during Surhoff's at-bat Posada pointed at his head while looking toward the third base coach and said, "You're going to get somebody hurt."

Trebelhorn told reporters they would have to get the complete story from Posada. But Posada left the clubhouse without speaking to reporters. . . .

John Yates, a Sept. 11 Pentagon survivor, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. . . . Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said the team is considering skipping Erik Bedard's spot in the rotation. The lefty has pitched a career-high 1331/3 innings after missing most of last season recovering from ligament replacement surgery.

Miguel Tejada is a little frustrated after striking out against Yankees reliever Tom Gordon in the eighth.