TORONTO, April 24 -- There are no pennant races in April, but the sight of a group of Orioles watching the Boston Red Sox on television after Baltimore's disgruntled and struggling ace, Sidney Ponson, had given a masterful performance must certainly be an encouraging sign to those who have waited more than seven seasons for a winning team. Not since 1997 have the Orioles, now one game ahead of the Red Sox, been in sole possession of first place on April 25. And not since the end of last season had they seen such a dominating performance by Ponson, who punctuated the three-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays with a five-hitter in Baltimore's 7-1 win Sunday.
Ponson carried a shutout into the ninth inning and retired the first two hitters, before allowing the next three batters to reach base. A run scored and Ponson, with his pitch count escalating, appeared exhausted.
Things are looking up for Sammy Sosa after two solo homers. Sosa has four HRs and 9 RBI.
(J.p. Moczulski -- Reuters)
He took off his cap and took a deep breath, his cheeks fully puffed, after beginning the count 2-0 to Blue Jays shortstop Russ Adams with men on first and second. Pitching coach Ray Miller visited Ponson on the mound.
"You'd like to get him the complete game and shutout, but you have to watch his pitch count," Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "That was as far as he was going."
Adams lined out to end the game and Ponson, who carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, had his complete game on 131 pitches. Ponson's no-hit bid ended with a single by Orlando Hudson with one out in the sixth.
"I'm really happy that Mazz stuck with me," Ponson said. "If I go out there for the ninth, I might as well finish it. It's one of those things that I work hard for. I really feel proud of myself when I go nine."
Only three days ago, Ponson faced the very real possibility he would not be allowed into Canada because of a pending DUI case and his court case in Aruba. In order for Ponson to pitch on Sunday, the Orioles acquired a "Minister's permit," which allowed the pitcher into the country for the three-day series. It had been such a last-minute decision by Canadian immigration that on Friday, Tripp Norton, Baltimore's assistant minor league director, had to fly to Buffalo to pick up the permit and fly back the same day to deliver it to Ponson, who is unable to fly commercially because his driver's license was confiscated after his DUI arrest in January.
"It was a 50-50 chance," Ponson said. "I was waiting for the decision by the government of Canada. They came up and let me get in and gave me a chance to not miss a start."
It is perhaps the most bewildering coincidence that Ponson, who had allowed at least four runs in his three outings prior to Sunday, leads the team with three wins. Ponson's slow start last year -- a 3-12 record with a 6.29 ERA at the all-star break -- buried Baltimore's chances of contending.
"I'm going to be good," Ponson said. "I don't care about ERA or nothing. I just want to get more wins than losses this year and have this team go to the playoffs. I think we have a very good team to do that."
It likely will be Ponson who determines whether the Orioles are a playoff team. He bears the responsibility of being the team's highest-paid pitcher -- an average of $7.5 million over the next two seasons.
"Sidney is a really good kid," shortstop Miguel Tejada said. "Sidney is one of our best pitchers. The only thing we need is that he be himself."
A three-game sweep against Toronto seemed unlikely with Roy Halladay pitching against the Orioles. Prior to Sunday, Halladay was 10-2 with a 2.31 ERA against Baltimore and had not lost his previous 10 decisions against the Orioles. However, Baltimore chased Halladay with five runs in six innings.
"We had to get on top of him," said third baseman Melvin Mora, who had a home run and double. "You know he doesn't joke around."
Baltimore heads to Boston on Monday for a three-game series against the Red Sox that will determine first place in the American League East. For the moment, Baltimore is pretending not to notice.
"We don't care about Boston," Mora said. "I didn't even know we were going to Boston. I just get on the plane and say, 'Go. Fly.' When I get there then I wonder where we are."
For now, in first place.