A dramatic change has come over the Baltimore Orioles this week, one as tangible as their climb in the American League East standings. Before, in the late innings of a close game, there was an inescapable feeling the Orioles would lose. Now, in the same situation, victory seems almost ensured.
That is what dominant starting pitching, a well-rested bullpen, a sturdy offense and a healthy winning streak will do. Today, the Orioles won a game they probably would have lost a month ago, scoring a cheap run in the bottom of the seventh inning to beat the Kansas City Royals, 2-1, before 41,913 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Jeff Reboulet's single on a pop-up bunt over the infield, which was more or less what he intended, brought home Harold Baines with the go-ahead run. It was the Orioles' seventh straight victory, their longest streak since last July 9 to 17, and kept them within one game of third-place Toronto.
"We used to find a different way to lose every night," said outfielder Rich Amaral, who tripled in the first inning and scored the Orioles' first run. "Now, we're finding ways to win."
Starting pitcher Sidney Ponson (7-4) tossed his second consecutive complete game, gaining strength from start to finish. By the end of the 129-pitch effort, with Manager Ray Miller sticking by him, Ponson was blowing 98 mph fastballs past the Royals. Ponson is 5-1 with a 2.67 earned run average in his past seven starts.
Ponson, 22, went into the seventh inning locked in a 1-1 duel with Royals left-hander Jose Rosado (4-6), whose deceptive change-up gave the Orioles problems. But in the bottom of the seventh, the Orioles manufactured a run in a way only a team on a roll can.
Designated hitter Baines led off with a double down the left field line. Miller normally would have sent in Brady Anderson or Delino DeShields to pinch-run, but DeShields was at home with his expectant wife, Tisha, and Miller did not want to waste Anderson, his only extra outfielder.
So when Cal Ripken laid down a bunt that Rosado fielded immediately, Baines likely would have been thrown out at third -- except that Royals third baseman Joe Randa was off the bag, motioning for Rosado to throw to first instead. Rosado threw to third anyway, even though Randa wasn't prepared, and Baines slid in safely.
Reboulet was instructed to bunt for a single, but when he noticed second baseman Carlos Febles creeping in, Reboulet told third-base coach Sam Perlozzo he thought he could push a hard bunt past Febles. While Reboulet didn't execute the bunt the way he wanted to -- he pushed it closer to first base than to second, and he popped it up -- it had the desired effect, dropping into shallow right field for a single.
"With first and third and nobody out, to me it's a no-brainer [to try to bunt for a hit] with a non-power guy up," Miller said. "They usually concede the run at the plate for the out, and the worst you have is a guy on second with one out and a run in. As it was, it worked out much better than that."
Said Reboulet: "I felt I needed to do something other than bunt to the second baseman. But no, I don't practice bunting the ball into right field."
Given a 2-1 lead, Ponson did the rest. He wasn't as sharp as he was Friday night in Atlanta, but he made good pitches when he needed to. The Royals stranded nine runners today, giving them 30 in the three-game series.
After the Orioles went ahead, Miller had ample justification for removing Ponson at any time. Ponson passed the 100-pitch mark with two outs in the seventh, and finished the eighth inning having thrown 116.
But Miller thought back to the ninth inning of Ponson's start May 21 against the Texas Rangers. With the Orioles leading 3-1, the Rangers put runners on second and third with nobody out and Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and Ivan Rodriguez due up. Miller stayed with Ponson, and Ponson delivered the victory.
So today, even when Royals pinch hitter Scott Leius singled with two outs in the ninth, even with left-handed-hitting Scott Pose at the plate and left-handed closer Arthur Rhodes ready in the bullpen, Miller stayed with Ponson.
"He's shown that if you need him to close it out, he can close it out," Miller said. "
"He asked me how I felt after the eighth," Ponson said. "I said I felt good. But that [decision] is always in Ray's hands."
Besides, if Miller had summoned Rhodes, Royals Manager Tony Muser likely would have used right-hand-hitting Mike Sweeney as a pinch hitter; and Miller liked Ponson vs. Pose better than Rhodes vs. Sweeney. Ponson rewarded Miller's confidence by retiring Pose on a grounder to second on his 129th pitch of the day.
"I looked up, I saw 97-98 [mph]," Miller said. "You stay with your starters when they show you something."
Orioles Notes: Royals shortstop Rey Sanchez left the game when he was hit in the face by a relay throw from second baseman Febles. Sanchez received 11 stitches. . . .
In their past 11 games, Orioles starting pitchers are 6-0 with a 2.26 ERA. . . . Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken maintained his milestone-a-day pace with a single in the second. Today's milestone: His 2,928 career hits passed Al Simmons for 30th place all-time. . . . B.J. Surhoff singled in the first inning to extend his hitting streak to a career-high 17 games.
Data: Orioles at Chicago White Sox, Thursday at 8:05 p.m., Friday at 4:05 p.m., Saturday at 7:05 p.m., Sunday at 2:05 p.m.
TV: HTS, Thursday; WBDC-50 and WNUV-54, Friday; WBDC-50 and WJZ-13, Saturday and Sunday.
Radio: WTOP-1500, WBAL-1090, WTOP-FM-107.7, WMJS-FM-92.7.
Records: Orioles 28-36; White Sox 32-30.
Pitchers: Thursday -- Orioles RHP Juan Guzman (3-4, 4.54 ERA) vs. LHP Mike Sirotka (5-6, 2.41); Friday -- Orioles RHP Mike Mussina (8-3, 3.80) vs. RHP Jaime Navarro (5-4, 5.54); Saturday -- Orioles RHP Scott Erickson (3-8, 6.17) vs. RHP John Snyder (7-5, 4.31); Sunday -- Orioles RHP Jason Johnson (0-1, 8.84) vs. RHP James Baldwin (3-6, 5.14).
CAPTION: Sidney Ponson gets a hand from catcher Charles Johnson after 129-pitch win that improved record to 7-4. He's 5-1 with a 2.67 ERA in past seven starts.