Red Sox 7-7, Orioles 5-5

One pitcher on Saturday carried the expectations that came with a brand new multimillion dollar contract. Sidney Ponson returned to the Baltimore Orioles this offseason to become the staff ace, but for most of the year seemed uncomfortable with the role. The other pitcher on Saturday was a complete unknown at the beginning of the season, but often wore the role of an ace like a comfortable coat. When Ponson slipped early in the year, rookie Daniel Cabrera rescued the Orioles. By the end of a doubleheader both had pitched in 7-5 losses to the Boston Red Sox. What had appeared to be a completely different season for each pitcher ended in strikingly similar ways.

The final pitch of Cabrera's surprising, inconsistent, inspiring, conflicting -- pick any, all apply -- season landed several inches wide of home plate for ball four. It was his final pitch of an inning that saw him allow six runs in a Game 1 loss to the Red Sox. It was a final inning that had been preceded by another inning in which he had dominated, retiring the Red Sox in order.

Cabrera's final game sung like his entire season, sweet at times, off pitch at others.

Ponson, a pitcher who had two distinctly different halves, had an equally uneven start on Saturday, shutting out the Red Sox through the first three innings, then conceding four runs in his final three innings of the season. He left the game with a 5-4 lead that had come with an RBI single by Miguel Tejada, a two-run home run by Javy Lopez and an RBI groundout by Larry Bigbie, but Jason Grimsley and Buddy Groom yielded three runs in the seventh.

Perhaps there was no bigger surprise on the Orioles' roster than Cabrera, a 23-year-old pitcher who began the season in Class AA and then rose quickly to the top of the Baltimore rotation. But in the second half, Cabrera, who threw a career-high 175 innings, including 271/3 in the minors, frustrated as much as he pleased.

Saturday's start was a perfect example. In the first inning, Cabrera's fastball hummed in the mid-nineties. But in the second inning, Cabrera could not throw an off-speed pitch for a strike, and Boston pounded him for five hits in the inning, in addition to three walks. Gabe Kapler, Pokey Reese and Johnny Damon each had RBI singles in the inning, and Orlando Cabrera tallied an RBI double.

"He was just all over the place," Baltimore Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "I don't know if he had any rhythm out there. He wasn't anywhere near the strike zone when he needed to be."

Perhaps there was no bigger disappointment than Ponson, who never recovered from a slow start that put his ERA at 6.29 at the all-star break. A much-publicized weight problem was given as a reason for Ponson's struggles. Ponson lost weight to start the second half, causing his ERA to slim as well. Ponson's season ended with an 11-15 record and a 5.30 ERA that does not seem much different than Cabrera's 12-8 record with a 5.00 ERA.

Cabrera ends the year as the most intriguing Orioles pitcher. Depending on what happens in the offseason, Cabrera could be a top starter, or he might even be forced to spend another year in the minors if Baltimore signs a slew of free agents. Cabrera is determined to learn from his rookie season.

"I plan to go home now and work hard for next year," he said.

Cabrera is enlisting the help of Boston ace Pedro Martinez. Cabrera said he first approached Martinez's cousin several weeks ago about the possibility of throwing with the veteran pitcher in the offseason. Cabrera then approached Martinez when the two teams met last week at Fenway Park.

"I think I can learn from him," Cabrera said. "He said I have a good fastball."

The Orioles almost kept Cabrera from his eighth loss of the year by rallying against a group of Boston relievers in Game 1. Starter Bronson Arroyo, in a playoff tune-up, pitched just three scoreless innings and left with a 7-0 lead. The Orioles cut the lead to four runs on home runs by Lopez and B.J. Surhoff. Miguel Tejada's two-run home run in the eighth inning put Baltimore within two runs. The Orioles had men on first and third in the ninth inning against Boston closer Keith Foulke, but stranded both runners.

"You keep fighting and you never know what could happen," Mazzilli said. "This team runs on a full tank of gas, but we just fell a bit short."

In Game 2 the Orioles also put the first two men on base in the ninth. Geronimo Gil singled and pinch hitter Melvin Mora walked. But both games ended similarly, with an Orioles loss.

Orioles Notes: Lopez returned to the starting lineup in Game 1. He was kept out of the starting lineup on Friday because of sore right foot suffered on a foul ball on Wednesday. Lopez pinch hit on Friday. . . . The Orioles' Rick Bauer will face Boston's Derek Lowe in Sunday's season finale.

Gabe Kapler tracks RBI single in the second inning of the first game of a doubleheader against the Orioles.