NEW YORK - The New York Yankees can’t even push a runner past first base lately, much less find a way to score.
Sidney Ponson became the latest pitcher to stop the suddenly punchless Yankees, throwing a two-hitter for his fourth career shutout in the Baltimore Orioles’ 7-0 victory Saturday.
Ponson faced just 29 hitters, two more than the minimum, and did not allow a runner past first. In fact, the Yankees have advanced only one runner beyond first in their last 17 innings — since the first inning of a 3-1 loss to Rodrigo Lopez and the Orioles on Friday night.
“Our offense is going to be fine,” Alex Rodriguez said. “Ponson threw a great game. We’ve just got to go back to playing a little baseball, take some small bites.”
Maybe, but this is no time for a major slump.
New York leads the AL East by only 2½ games over Boston, which had its 10-game winning streak snapped Saturday with an 8-6 loss to Texas. And the Yankees will be without starting pitcher Kevin Brown for at least three weeks — possibly the rest of the season. He was examined by a hand specialist at Yankee Stadium after breaking his non-pitching hand when he punched a clubhouse wall Friday night.
“It’s obviously a big blow for our team. We have to go on and find a way to win games,” said Rodriguez, who declined to comment when asked about the way Brown hurt himself.
Rafael Palmeiro, Jay Gibbons and Brian Roberts homered for the Orioles, who have won six in a row following a 12-game losing streak. Baltimore starters are 4-0 with a 0.61 ERA in the last four games.
“You certainly have to give Ponson credit. He pitched his tail off,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “But we’re flat right now, no question. We’re not getting into hitters’ counts. We have to get back to simple, fundamental approaches, making the pitcher work harder.”
The Orioles broke it open with five runs in the ninth, four charged to Mariano Rivera, who got only one out. Palmeiro hit his 543rd career homer off Rivera, and Larry Bigbie had an RBI single.
Roberts hit the first pitch from Bret Prinz, just recalled from the minors, over the right-field fence for a three-run shot, making it 7-0.
“Rivera is probably the toughest pitcher that I’ve ever faced other than maybe Randy Johnson,” Palmeiro said. “He’s the best closer that’s ever played the game.”
Miguel Cairo’s third-inning single and Gary Sheffield’s single in the fourth were the only hits off Ponson (10-13). He struck out four and walked one in his 27th career complete game and fifth this season.
Ponson retired his final 13 batters and has permitted just one runner to advance past first base in his last 17 innings against New York. The right-hander threw a four-hitter in a 9-1 victory at Yankee Stadium on July 29.
“I love pitching here. The energy that the fans bring to the ballpark, I feed off it,” he said. “I believe in nine innings.”
Mussina (9-9) struck out eight and walked none. He is 0-5 since beating the Mets 11-6 on June 27, including 0-3 since coming off the DL. He missed more than a month with a stiff elbow.
“The last two games I’ve felt good. We’ve struggled here for the last couple of games as a team, but I just tried to give us a chance to win, and I think I did,” Mussina said. “Today it got away from us late, but I felt very optimistic about my performance. I had a lot of options.”
The right-hander gave up seven hits and fell to 8-4 in 15 starts against his former team.
“I thought today he took another step forward,” catcher John Flaherty said. “His velocity was better, up from his last start in Toronto. We wasted a very good performance.”
Ponson, pleased with an adjustment he made in his delivery, is 7-1 with a 3.88 ERA in 10 outings since a nine-start losing streak. He threw 77 of his 109 pitches for strikes and improved to 5-11 lifetime against the Yankees.
“I knew things would turn around. It couldn’t get any worse than that,” he said. “It wasn’t fun, but I kept battling.”
The two-hitter matched the best outing of his career. He also threw a two-hitter on June 28, 2001, at Toronto.
It was Ponson’s second shutout of the year. He pitched a five-hitter in a 4-0 win over Anaheim on May 16.
“The last 18 innings he’s been unbelievable here at the stadium. But we’ve still got to do better than that,” Rodriguez said.
Gibbons homered in the third, and Melvin Mora’s bloop RBI single made it 2-0 in the sixth.
Notes: It was Palmeiro’s first homer since Aug. 1, also at Yankee Stadium, and only his second since the All-Star break. ... Baltimore has seven shutouts this season. The Yankees have been blanked six times, including a record-setting 22-0 defeat Tuesday against Cleveland. ... Rivera had not allowed a run in 15 1-3 innings spanning 14 appearances since July 30.
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