Orioles 4, Blue Jays 0
These are the days of vigilante justice for Sidney Ponson. Armed with new weapons in the season's second half, the Baltimore Orioles right-hander is making his way around the league, avenging ugly losses and pitching with an urgency that has him on the verge of completing a remarkable turnaround.
Having avenged losses at Kansas City and New York in recent weeks, on Friday night Ponson turned his guns on the Toronto Blue Jays, whom he proceeded to shut out over six dazzling innings in a 4-0 Orioles victory at SkyDome, the team's 10th win in its last 11 games.
Despite a curiously early hook from Manager Lee Mazzilli, Ponson improved to 5-0 with a 3.24 ERA in six starts since the all-star break. After losing nine straight starts to close out a disastrous 3-12 first half, Ponson (8-12) has drawn himself within four wins of .500, with nine starts to go.
Meantime, the Orioles (56-58) pulled within two games of .500 for the first time since June 9. Remarkably, two more wins here this weekend against the decaying Blue Jays could send the Orioles back to Baltimore at the break-even mark.
"This [team] feels pretty good about itself," Mazzilli said.
The Orioles entered the game boasting the American League's top offense (.283), but they needed seven innings to break through against Blue Jays starter Miguel Batista. Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts snapped a scoreless tie in the top of the seventh by crushing a deep fly ball to right-center that one-hopped the wall for a ground-rule double, scoring Jerry Hairston from second base.
Only two innings before, with Hairston on first base and two outs, Roberts had hit a drive to almost the exact same spot against Batista (9-8) that would have scored Hairston easily from first base -- except that the ball hopped over the wall, forcing Hairston to remain at third.
The second time around, Hairston had stolen second base -- on a broken hit-and-run play called by Mazzilli -- to get himself in scoring position only two pitches before Roberts's drive.
David Newhan followed Roberts's RBI double by looping a broken-bat single into center field, scoring Roberts to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead.
Ponson got the quick hook after giving up a double to Vernon Wells to open the bottom of the seventh. At the time, Ponson was working on a five-hit shutout and had thrown only 78 pitches, making this his shortest stint, in terms of number of pitches thrown, since May 27 and his third shortest of the season.
"I was shocked," Ponson said. "But the manager knows what he's doing. It doesn't matter if I get mad at what he does."
Mazzilli said his decision to go to lock-down lefty B.J. Ryan in that situation was made before the game, owing to the fact the Blue Jays had three straight left-handed hitters coming to the plate after Wells.
"B.J. has been phenomenal against lefties all year," Mazzilli said. "I felt it was the right time to shut it down right there."
Wells advanced to third base on Carlos Delgado's towering fly ball that came down just shy of the center field warning track, but got no farther, as Ryan struck out the next two batters to end the inning. Right-handers Jason Grimsley and Jorge Julio took it from there, retiring the final six Blue Jays hitters in order.
Ponson had suffered perhaps his most gruesome defeat of the season at the hands of the Blue Jays here on April 25, a 10-hit, nine-run beating in an eventual 15-3 loss. He seemed determined not to let it happen again.
Ponson was keyed up, demonstrative, almost hyper on the mound. He gestured at teammates after nice plays, such as the three double plays that helped snuff out scoring chances. When he felt his arm angle had slipped, he corrected it with a practice motion on the mound and slapped himself on the thigh as a reminder. After innings, he strutted off the mound while gazing up at the crowd as if looking for approval.
The Blue Jays seemed to unprepared for the four-pitch wizard that Ponson has become since the arrival of pitching coach Ray Miller in late June -- as opposed to the predictable sinker-slider specialist he had been before. Ponson's first five strikeouts all came on called third strikes.
"From the second half on," Mazzilli said of Ponson, "he's been a pitcher, more than anything."
Orioles Notes: Team officials continue to explore the possibility of making one or more "waiver" trades -- which can be made even after the July 31 trading deadline, provided the involved players pass through waivers.
According to a report on ESPN.com, at least three players -- relievers Buddy Groom and Jason Grimsley and outfielder B.J. Surhoff -- have cleared waivers and thus can be traded.
Groom could be particularly coveted, as several contending teams are in desperate need of a left-handed reliever -- including the New York Yankees, who have only one lefty in their bullpen, and the Anaheim Angels, who have none. . . .
Right-hander Kurt Ainsworth (elbow surgery) allowed only two hits and one run over 32/3 innings during a 60-pitch rehabilitation start with Class A Aberdeen. . . .
Backup catcher Ken Huckaby cleared waivers and was outrighted to Class AAA Ottawa.