Orioles 11, Rangers 5

-- As he walked from the pitcher's mound to the Baltimore Orioles' dugout Sunday afternoon, Sidney Ponson removed his sweat-drenched cap, a scene that has been playing out all season at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Only this time, Ponson did not remove it for the purpose of flinging it in disgust to the dugout bench. He was responding to a standing ovation from a crowd that usually saves its loudest boos for him.

Who would have thought a month ago that Ponson could be cheered so heartily? And for that matter, who would have thought the Orioles could be the owners of a six-game winning streak, a share of third place and a wealth of optimism?

It was all true on Sunday, after the Orioles destroyed the Texas Rangers, 11-5, behind Ponson's 72/3 effective innings and a three-hit, four-RBI day from prospective batting champ Melvin Mora. The win pulled the Orioles (52-57) within five games of .500 for the first time since June 14.

"I was expecting us to be a pretty good team ever since spring training," said veteran catcher Javy Lopez. "Now, this is the team I was expecting. . . . We want to finish at .500, maybe a little over."

Meantime, Ponson (7-12) also pulled within five games of .500. It is a tossup as to which is more surprising. When the first half of the season came to a close about a month ago, Ponson was 3-12; the Orioles were 37-48.

"I still have a legitimate chance at having a winning record," said Ponson, who probably will have 10 more starts this season. "And I'm shooting for it."

A cynic could have found reason to question the validity of the first five wins of the Orioles' current streak: The first three came against the moribund Seattle Mariners, the next two against an unproven rookie (Texas's Nick Regilio) and a 36-year-old shoulder-surgery survivor (Scott Erickson).

But on Sunday, the Orioles destroyed all-star left-hander Kenny Rogers (13-5), whom they bashed for eight hits and seven earned runs in just over four innings. Mora's two-run homer in the first inning started the damage, and B.J. Surhoff's two-run double in the fifth ended it.

Mora added RBI singles in the fourth and fifth innings, and is hitting .348, nine points behind batting leader Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners. Since Mora returned to the lineup following a stay on the disabled list for a strained foot, the Orioles have gone 12-7.

"Our offense has been a lot better since Melvin came back," said shortstop Miguel Tejada. "The guy is hitting .350. I think he can win the batting title."

The Rangers came to Baltimore three days ago as a first-place team, but the Orioles, of all teams, may have exposed them, after winning three games by a combined score of 23-7, with Monday afternoon's series finale still to be played.

"We haven't been hitting that well lately," Rogers said, "but today wasn't about our hitting. It was more about my pitching."

Orioles designated hitter David Newhan manufactured a run in the third, pushing a bunt to the right side for a single, then, two batters later, moving from second to third when Rangers right fielder Gary Matthews hesitated following Tejada's fly ball. That put him in position to score on Lopez's line-drive sacrifice fly to left.

Ponson's day began with a good omen, as Rangers leadoff man Alfonso Soriano doubled high off the scoreboard in right, but was guilty of posing over it a tad too long and was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple. From then until the eighth inning, Ponson's only trouble came when he made a mistake in the third on a 1-0 pitch to Brian Jordan, who crushed it into the seats in left.

Hank Blalock's RBI double with two outs in the eighth inning brought Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli from the dugout to pull Ponson. However, before he could do so, the Orioles' infielders gathered at the mound to congratulate Ponson, as the crowd -- which had filled Ponson's ears with boos plenty of times this season -- began to rise.

Before taking the ball, Mazzilli leaned over and whispered into Ponson's ear, telling him he pitched a great game and to enjoy the ovation on the way back to the dugout.

"You don't like to hear the boos," Mazzilli said. "It's part of the game. But it's nice to hear some cheers, too."

Ponson was almost to the dugout when he removed his cap and doffed it in the direction of the fans behind the dugout.

"If I have a bad game the next time, they'll boo me again," Ponson said. "It's something you deal with. I can't get too high or too low."

Orioles Notes: The team expects to activate Jay Gibbons (strained hip flexor) from the disabled list on Monday or Tuesday, which will create a glut of left-handed-hitting outfielders. In addition to Gibbons, the Orioles have Surhoff, Newhan, Larry Bigbie, and Karim Garcia on their roster. . . . Ponson's walk of David Dellucci to start the fourth inning was the first by an Orioles pitcher in 131/3 innings. The Orioles still lead the league in walks by a large margin, but their team ERA is 4.15 since Ray Miller replaced Mark Wiley as pitching coach on June 26.

Miguel Tejada completes a double play after Texas's Gary Matthews is forced out at second. Orioles' Melvin Mora went 3 for 5, raising his average to .348.