- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2001


BALTIMORE Never has the notion of being merely average been so encouraging.

But when you've spent the better part of the last four months trying to convince the baseball world you're not nearly as bad as everyone thinks, the simple act of opening up this morning's newspaper and seeing "Baltimore 24-24 .500" takes on some added significance.

"We're playing much better baseball than we were last year or two years ago," Sidney Ponson said after pitching the Orioles to a 3-1 win over the Texas Rangers yesterday. "We have a team capable of beating anybody. We just have to keep doing what we've been doing."

The Orioles, winners of a season-high five straight games and nine of their last 11, have reached the .500 plateau for the first time since they were 4-4 during the second week of the season. They will look for a series sweep of the Rangers this afternoon, when rookie Josh Towers makes his first major league start in place of Pat Hentgen, whose injured right elbow is looking more serious than originally anticipated.

Baltimore has won most of its games during this recent streak by outslugging its opponents, of all things. Yesterday, the Orioles got some standout pitching and took advantage of a pair of costly mistakes by Texas.

In his fourth start since coming off the disabled list with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder, Ponson took a few innings to get going before ending his day in dominating fashion. The right-hander surrendered seven hits over his seven innings but allowed the Rangers to bunch together multiple hits only in the third inning.

With two outs, Rusty Greer doubled to left and advanced to third on Ivan Rodriguez's infield single. Alex Rodriguez followed with a hit to right field, bringing Greer home with what amounted to Texas' lone run.

Ponson (2-3) strengthened as the game wore on, giving up one hit and one walk in his last three innings and retiring the last six batters he faced. With his starter's pitch count at 104, manager Mike Hargrove was prepared to let Ponson start the eighth, only to have those plans washed away by a sudden downpour that halted the game for 1 hour, 5 minutes in the bottom of the seventh.

"I felt that I got my rhythm and was starting to throw the ball more aggressively [in later innings]," Ponson said. "I was hoping it was a short rain delay because I was going to go out there for the eighth and ninth, definitely."

As he has done throughout this homestand, Hargrove turned to his bullpen on the basis of matchups. And as has been the case nearly every time, Baltimore's relievers came through.

Left-hander B.J. Ryan blew away the potent top of the Rangers' lineup (Greer and the two Rodriguezes) in the top of the eighth, then struck out Rafael Palmeiro to begin the ninth. Ryan had two strikes on Gabe Kapler, but the Texas outfielder fouled off nine pitches during a 14-pitch at-bat, ultimately singling to left.

"In that situation there, it was, 'All right, here it is,' said Ryan, who kept feeding Kapler fastballs. "I'm going to make you earn your way on. If he hits it, he hits it. I figured he was eventually going to [miss one] and I'd get to face the next guy. But after he got that base hit, I pretty much knew that was it."

In came workhorse Mike Trombley for the 24th time this season and third straight game. On his fourth pitch to pinch hitter Andres Galarraga, Trombley got a hard grounder to third base. Cal Ripken flipped it to second baseman Jerry Hairston, who fired to first to complete the game-ending double play.

Trombley, who matched last year's total with his fourth save, has now held a Baltimore lead all 13 times he's been handed one, a far cry from a season ago when he held a 6.00 ERA after two months.

"This time last year I think everyone was ready to run Mike out of town on a rail," Hargrove said. "Mike has come in and pitched like we've seen him pitch in the past. He's pitched well in whatever role we've asked him to pitch in."

The Orioles scored all three of their runs in the first three innings, all of them made possible by Rangers gaffes.

After Brady Anderson led off the first with a single, Mike Bordick hit what looked like a sure 5-4-3 double play groundball. But rookie second baseman Michael Young, making his first career start, double-pumped the turn and was unable to throw out Bordick, who got a late jump out of the batter's box. The mistake proved costly because Chris Richard followed with a double to deep right-center, scoring Bordick all the way from first.

Richard then took third on a wild pitch by Texas starter Ryan Glynn (1-4), which allowed him to score on Jeff Conine's sacrifice fly to center.

Baltimore took a 3-1 lead in the third when David Segui reached on a two-base error by right fielder Ruben Mateo (who dropped a fly ball on the run) and scored on Ripken's line drive single to center.

All was not rosy afterward for the Orioles, who revealed that Hentgen will have to go to Birmingham, Ala., this week to seek a second opinion on his injured elbow from orthopedic specialist James Andrews. Results of a MRI taken Saturday on Hentgen were "inconclusive," according to Hargrove, who added that the likelihood of Hentgen being unable to return for his next scheduled start Friday is "pretty close to 100 percent."

Hentgen, who has not pitched since May 16, has a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow (commonly referred to as tendinitis), an injury that has caused the Orioles to become more concerned with each passing day.

"It's been since the 16th since I pitched last. If you asked me on the 17th if I'd have thought it would still be bothering me, I'd have said no way," Hentgen said. "But I think it's bothering me enough to credit an MRI and a visit to the doctor for a second opinion."

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