Orioles 4, Angels 0

If there was ever a time for Sidney Ponson to break out of his slump, to begin pitching like the Baltimore Orioles' ace, that time was Sunday night, with his team in the midst of a losing streak and the beleaguered starting rotation receiving much of the blame for it.

Ponson, who had failed to get a victory in his four previous starts, was dominant, locating all of his pitches for strikes and blowing his 96 mph fastball past the Anaheim Angels in a 4-0 victory before 25,448 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for the Orioles (18-16) in the finale of a three-game series against the Angels (25-13). Ponson (3-3) pitched a complete game, yielding five hits, one walk and striking out four to pick up his first victory since April 20. Ponson out-dueled his Anaheim counterpart, Kelvim Escobar (2-2), who yielded seven hits and three runs in 61/3 innings.

"Sidney's command was excellent," Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "He mixed up his pitches well. And he went right after them. Bases on balls always come back to get you, and he stayed away from those. He needed that [performance], and I needed that."

Baltimore catcher Javy Lopez went 3 for 4 and scored a run, and Jerry Hairston drove in two runs for the Orioles.

At the crux of the Orioles' starting pitching problems had been Ponson. The right-hander was 0-3 in his past four starts with an ERA of 10.29 during that span. The staff began the night with the worst ERA in the American League at 7.74. Ponson hopes his third career shutout may end his slump and inspire the other starters.

"Hopefully it will be smooth sailing from now on," said Ponson, who threw 105 pitches, 70 for strikes. "I was frustrated and upset with myself. Today, I was happy and smiling [and] more relaxed."

After a suspect start to the game, Ponson settled into a groove, firing fastballs that stayed mostly in the mid-90's. He retired nine consecutive Angels in innings four through seven, and also received outstanding defensive help that included an eye-popping, shoestring catch by center fielder Luis Matos in the seventh. Not to be outdone, Orioles left fielder Larry Bigbie brought the fans to their feet in the ninth inning with sprawling catch.

"When Sidney is pitching like that, it picks us up," Hairston said. "We needed this game. It was a must win for us. Sidney came out and closed the door. It was great to see Sidney being Sidney again."

Ponson wasn't sharp early. After retiring the side in the first inning, Ponson's command suddenly disappeared as he issued a walk to Angels designated hitter Jose Guillen and a single to Casey Kotchman in the second inning. But Ponson wiggled his way out of trouble thanks to a double play.

It wasn't long before Ponson found himself in a jam again. After yielding a single to Shane Halter to lead off the third inning, Ponson helped the defense turn a 3-6-1 double play. David Eckstein and Chone Figgins each reached on perfectly-placed bunts. But Jeff DaVanon hit a fly ball to right to end the threat.

Escobar, meantime, was splendid early. He allowed only one Orioles base runner through three innings. He retired the side in the first and third inning, his only blemish a second-inning single by Jay Gibbons.

But Escobar faltered in the fifth. Baltimore took a 2-0 lead on three consecutive hits and an error. Lopez and Gibbons singled to lead off the inning, then Matos bunted toward third base. He was awarded a single when Halter's throw hit him in the leg as he crossed first base, which allowed Lopez to score. Gibbons came home moments later on a sacrifice fly by Hairston.

The Orioles took a 3-0 lead in the seventh inning thanks to Hairston, whose single scored Matos from second base. Baltimore's lead grew to 4-0 in the eighth inning on another error by Halter when he mishandled Matos's sharp ground ball, allowing Rafael Palmeiro to score.

Ponson closed it out in the ninth, inducing two groundouts and throwing a 96-mph heater past Guillen to end the game.

Orioles Notes: Mazzilli said pitcher Rodrigo Lopez, recently promoted to the Orioles' struggling starting rotation, will make his first start of the season during the team's series against the Mariners, which begins Tuesday in Seattle. Lopez takes the spot in the rotation vacated by Kurt Ainsworth, who was optioned to Class AAA Ottawa on Saturday. Lopez will start either Wednesday or Thursday, Mazzilli said. . . . Right-hander Daniel Cabrera will start Tuesday. . . . Angles catcher Bengie Molina exited the game in the third inning with a strained right groin muscle. He was replaced by his brother, Jose Molina.

Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli, left, is all wrapped up in Sidney Ponson's effort. "He needed that [performance], and I needed that," said the skipper.