In a season when so little has gone right for the Baltimore Orioles, Sidney Ponson is one of the exceptions. Despite the burden of high expectations and the worries that come with a slow start, Ponson turned in the latest in a series of first-rate performances tonight in leading the Orioles to a 4-1 victory over the New York Mets in front of 45,450 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Ponson pitched a six-hitter, walking three and striking out three for his fifth complete game, tops in the American League. He has pitched at least seven innings in 13 of his last 16 starts thanks to a fastball routinely clocked at better than 95 mph and a slider that breaks bats and stings fists.
"It was really a commanding game," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said. "He's got great stuff. He's still going to make mistakes, but every time out he learns something."
He needed 118 pitches to finish and was good enough he didn't need much offense. Albert Belle's 20th home run accounted for two runs in the fourth inning. Mike Bordick had a sacrifice fly in the fourth and Will Clark was hit by Al Leiter's pitch with the bases loaded in the first.
Ponson (9-6) also made a nice defensive play to start a double play and get himself out of trouble in the first inning. Left fielder B.J. Surhoff made a sliding catch to rob John Olerud of a hit in the third inning.
That was about it. The Mets scored their run in the third inning and got runners into scoring position only one other time -- in the seventh, when Benny Agbayani led off with a single and Matt Franco walked. Ponson got out of the inning by getting Luis Lopez to fly out on a curveball, by striking out Roger Cedeno on a 96 mph fastball and by getting Ricky Henderson to pop up a 95 mph fastball.
Ponson had a personal cheering section, a group of 11 from his native Aruba, including his mother, who was seeing him pitch a a big league game for only the third time.
"I'm just happy they saw me pitch a good game," Ponson said. "I'm 3-0 when my mom comes to the game, so I have to get her here more often. I just threw strikes and made good pitches. The guys played well behind me. I guess I'm throwing strikes and concentrating better. I'm also learning the guys in the league. I'm working hard and asking a lot of questions. Hopefully, I can keep this level of concentration."
Miller has preached that his team is only as good as its pitching. Finally, on a night when the pitching was terrific, Miller wasn't around to see it.
He was ejected in the first inning after arguing a call by third-base umpire Rick Reed, who had called Rich Amaral out on a throw from catcher Mike Piazza on an attempted steal of third.
"I was upset [Reed] was down the line and had his back to the base," Miller said. "He said he saw the play. There's no way. He also said something that ticked me off and I reminded him of his [bad] strike zone" Monday night.
Leiter (8-7) took the loss, allowing eight hits and four walks in five innings. He hung around longer than he should have because the Orioles left the bases loaded in the first and third innings -- they stranded 11 runners in the game -- and entered the fourth with a 1-1 tie.
The Orioles had taken a 1-0 lead in the third, but the Mets tied it in the top of the third when Henderson legged out a double and scored on Edgardo Alfonzo's single.
The Orioles finally broke through in the fourth. Ryan Minor led off the inning by looping a single into shallow center for his first hit since he was called up from the minors. Amaral singled to center, and Minor ended up at third when Agbayani bobbled the ball.
Amaral stole second, and Bordick got Minor home with a sacrifice fly to shallow center. Surhoff grounded out, but Belle put Leiter's fastball over the fence in left-center for a 4-1 lead.
Ponson closed it out from there. He allowed a runner to reach scoring position only in the seventh. After Franco's walk, he retired eight of the last nine Mets and finished the game by getting a double-play grounder from Franco.
Data: Orioles at Boston Red Sox, tonight and Thursday at 7:05 p.m.
Radio: WTOP-1500, WBAL-1090, WTOP-FM-107.7, WMJS-FM-92.7.
Records: Orioles 40-53, Red Sox 52-42.
Pitchers: Tonight -- Orioles RHP Mike Mussina (12-4, 3.57 ERA) vs. RHP Bret Saberhagen (6-3, 2.81); Thursday -- Orioles RHP Scott Erickson (5-8, 5.70) vs. RHP Mark Portugal (5-7, 5.42).
CAPTION: Baltimore's Sidney Ponson helps his fielders track a pop fly hit by New York Mets' Edgardo Alfonzo, which was caught by right fielder Albert Belle.