The Baltimore Orioles glimpse into the future and imagine games like this, when a young pitcher turns in a dominating performance and their offense, led by baseball's highest-paid player, provides plenty of runs. Sidney Ponson pitched 8 1/3 strong innings tonight and the Orioles hit three home runs, including Albert Belle's three-run shot, for a 6-3 victory over the woeful Detroit Tigers before 40,886 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
In a season in which the disappointments and shortcomings have far outnumbered the successes, Ponson's development has been one of the brightest stories. He came within two outs of improving his American League-leading complete game total to six, then watched Mike Timlin retire the final two batters.
Offensively, Brady Anderson and Charles Johnson hit solo home runs for the Orioles (48-60), who trail the Toronto Blue Jays by 11 games in the wild-card race and no longer entertain wild thoughts about making the playoffs. Belle's 27th home run was the decisive blow, giving the Orioles a 6-1 lead in the third inning.
From there, Ponson (10-7) took over. After getting out of a jam in the third, he did not allow a Tiger past first base until the eighth inning. Ponson struck out four and walked none, while throwing 77 of his 109 pitches for strikes and improving to 7-3 at home.
"It's all about if you can throw strikes and hit spots, you can win," said Ponson, who had allowed 11 runs in 10 innings in his previous two starts, prompting Manager Ray Miller to wonder if the 22-year-old right-hander was tiring. "The last couple starts, I wasn't doing that. I wasn't hitting my spots and I was getting pitches up."
That was not the case tonight, though. "He threw hard tonight and really dug back," said Johnson, the Orioles' catcher.
Ponson limited the Tigers to run-scoring groundouts in third and eighth until Juan Encarnacion's solo home run with one out in the ninth inning cut the Orioles lead to 6-3. Gabe Alvarez lined a single to left field, and Miller decided to bring in Timlin. After Miller was booed loudly while walking to the mound to replace Ponson, Timlin earned his 13th save.
"It probably wasn't very popular," Miller said of bringing in Timlin, who has struggled this season. "But it was the thing to do."
Ponson pitched with the lead almost the entire game. Anderson doubled and eventually scored on a groundout by B.J. Surhoff in the first inning and Johnson hit a one-out homer over the 364-foot sign in left field in the second inning to make it 2-0. It was Johnson's first home run since June 25.
The only difficulty Ponson encountered was in the third, when Deivi Cruz lined a leadoff single up the middle and former Orioles farmhand Kimera Bartee blooped a double to right field, putting runners on second and third with none out. However, Ponson rallied, striking out Luis Polonia on a high fastball. Shortstop Mike Bordick made a sensational diving, backhand stop then threw to first base to rob Brad Ausmus of a hit. Cruz scored on the play to make it 2-1, but Ponson got Damion Easley to ground out softly to second base to end the inning.
Their lead cut in half, the Orioles responded in the bottom of the inning. Anderson led off with a home run into the bleachers in right-center field, then Tigers starter Jeff Weaver (6-8) hit Bordick with a pitch and walked Surhoff. Belle fouled off one 2-2 pitch, then hit the ball about 10 rows beyond the left field fence to make it 6-1.
After Ponson's recent struggles, Miller mentioned the possibility of skipping Ponson's next few turns in the rotation, hoping to refresh Ponson, who is in his first full major league season. Instead, Ponson flew home one day early from the team's recent road trip and was splendid tonight.
"He's a keeper," Miller said. Jason "Johnson is a keeper. They both have a high upside because they have talent and I think they are intelligent."