Orioles 7, Yankees 0

What does it say about the New York Yankees that they could not win a game Saturday in which Mike Mussina tossed seven excellent innings, that they were desperate enough to bring their incomparable closer into a game they trailed only to see the move blow up in their faces, that in the midst of a suddenly tight playoff race they have dropped two straight to the lowly Baltimore Orioles?

For that matter, what does it say about the Orioles that they have blown into Yankee Stadium this weekend, a place they never win, and have beaten up on the Yankees, a team they never beat -- including a definitive, two-hit, complete-game shutout from Sidney Ponson on Saturday?

Any explanations are welcome, because right now everything about these teams seems to be upside down, backward and inside out.

The Yankees are the ones reeling, with their 7-0 loss to the Orioles on Saturday made doubly worse by the news that right-hander Kevin Brown will need surgery Sunday to repair a fracture in his left hand, suffered when he punched a wall in frustration Friday night. An admittedly optimistic prognosis from Manager Joe Torre was that Brown could return in a minimum of three weeks.

They also missed a chance to regain a game on the surging Boston Red Sox, who saw their 10-game winning streak snapped at home by the Texas Rangers and who still trail the Yankees by 21/2 games in the American League East.

"We're still a good team," Torre said, "but we have to make the [opposing] pitcher work a little harder."

And it is the Orioles who are playing like champions -- or at least like a frighteningly streaky squad that has gotten decidedly hot. Saturday's win, which clinched the Orioles' first series win in the Bronx in more than two years, was the team's sixth in a row, following a season-high 12-game losing streak.

Ponson's masterful performance bordered on career-defining, as he allowed only a pair of singles and a walk while striking out four over nine dazzling innings against the league's third-highest-scoring offense. It was his second career two-hitter.

"I'm going to tell you what: To two-hit this team, to shut them out in this stadium, that's some pretty good pitching," said Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli, whose squad won for only the fourth time in 15 games against the Yankees this season. "You don't shut out this team in this stadium too often."

After a nightmarish first half in which he went 3-12, drew the ire of his owner and hastened the firing of his pitching coach, Ponson (10-13) has won seven of his eight decisions in the second half, posting a 3.88 ERA in the process.

Over the past two starts, Ponson has debuted a new delivery, featuring a pause at the top of his windup, which allows his arm to catch up to his body as it goes forward and keeps his hips from flying open.

On Saturday, longtime Ponson observers were mesmerized by his mastery -- including Mussina, Ponson's teammate in Baltimore for three seasons.

"His style is different," Mussina said. "He's moving the ball around. He's cutting it, sinking it, throwing splitters, dropping curves in there. And he's only throwing enough [four-seamed] fastballs to make people think about it. He was down in the strike zone with everything. When you're throwing like that against a team that's flat, you're going to get some two-hitters."

For most of the game, Ponson had minimal run support to help him out. Right fielder Jay Gibbons homered off Mussina (9-9) in the third, and Melvin Mora's bloop single in the sixth brought home a second run.

It wasn't until the ninth inning, when Yankees closer Mariano Rivera entered, that the game got out of hand. Four of the five Orioles batters Rivera faced collected hits, including Rafael Palmeiro's 543rd career homer. Rivera was unceremoniously yanked and replaced by Bret Prinz, whose first pitch was deposited into the right field bleachers by Brian Roberts for a three-run homer.

Ponson then strolled to the mound to finish off his gem. Minutes earlier, he had been sitting on the bench when pitching coach Ray Miller sauntered over to gauge Ponson's interest in pitching the ninth.

"I got it," Ponson replied.

Miller walked away satisfied, his day's work over. And Ponson went back to the mound, retiring his 11th, 12th and 13th straight batters, finishing it off with a 93-mph fastball that Derek Jeter lined to first base. Of Ponson's 109 pitches, 77 were strikes.

"He's definitely locked in," Miller said. "It's fun to watch."

Orioles Notes: David Segui made his first start at first base since April 24, as the Orioles continue to limit Palmeiro's playing time at the position. Palmeiro started at designated hitter Saturday for the second time in five days. Palmeiro's contract contains a $4.5 million option for 2005 that vests if he plays at least 140 games on defense. He would need to play at first base in 22 of the Orioles' final 28 games to trigger the option.

Palmeiro's homer off Rivera was only his 15th of the season, and his streak of eight straight seasons of 38 or more homers will come to an end. . . .

Roberts added a single and a double and is 12 for 27 in his last seven games. His double gave him 43 this season, tying Roberto Alomar (1996) and Delino DeShields (2000) for the third-most by an Oriole. Cal Ripken holds the club record with 47 in 1983.

New York closer Mariano Rivera, foreground, exits during Baltimore's 5-run ninth.Aided by a new delivery, Sidney Ponson has won 7 of his past 8 decisions for the surging Orioles.