NEW YORK - As if Sidney Ponson didn't have enough on his mind these days, he went to the mound last night at Yankee Stadium, opposite Roger Clemens, with the Orioles pretty much in desperate need of a sterling performance.
Ponson answered that challenge for seven innings, and though he faltered in the eighth, turning this one into a dramatic test for a tired Orioles bullpen, manager Mike Hargrove still had high praise for his beleaguered pitcher.
"That's as good as I've seen him throw in a pressure situation," Hargrove said, after Mike Bordick's ninth-inning run-scoring double off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera lifted the Orioles to a 4-3 victory.
One day after squandering a six-run lead in a loss to the Seattle Mariners, the Orioles played some of their best baseball of the season and improved to an astounding 3-0 in games started by Clemens this season.
Clemens matched his season high with 13 strikeouts, holding the Orioles to two runs over seven innings. But Ponson was even better for his first seven innings, holding the Yankees to one run on two hits.
Ponson took a 3-1 lead into the eighth inning, but he had already thrown 113 pitches, only eight fewer than his season high. Hargrove said he wouldn't have used Ponson to start the eighth had the bullpen been better rested.
But in this case, Hargrove said, "Our bullpen was absolutely fried."
Things fell apart quickly, as Nick Johnson lined a single to left field, and Alfonso Soriano followed with a double into the left-field corner. Johnson scored all the way from first, as the ball bounced away from Orioles left fielder Melvin Mora.
Looking rattled, Ponson walked Derek Jeter with the last four of his 123 pitches, and Hargrove finally turned to the bullpen.
"I'm just happy we won," Ponson said. "If it wasn't for our defense, offense and bullpen, we probably would have lost today."
Before the game, Hargrove said the team was going to have to "bite the bullet" and try not to use setup men Rick Bauer and Buddy Groom. So in a spot Hargrove would have normally used Bauer, he turned to Willis Roberts, who has posted a 1.91 ERA this season, mostly in situations that were a lot less stressful than this.
Roberts walked Bernie Williams on four pitches, loading the bases, so Hargrove brought in left-hander B.J. Ryan to face Jason Giambi. Ryan then did his best impression of Groom, striking out the left-handed-hitting Giambi.
Hargrove went back to the mound, congratulated Ryan, and turned the game over to struggling Orioles closer Jorge Julio. One pitch later, the Yankees tied the game, as Jorge Posada hit a screaming sacrifice fly, scoring Soriano from third.
Julio (3-4), who took both of the Orioles losses against Seattle over the weekend, remained poised, getting Enrique Wilson to fly out to end the inning.
With momentum on their side, the Yankees turned to Rivera (1-2), and the Orioles looked like they were in big trouble.
But Gary Matthews lined a single with one out and stole second base after Rivera struck out Geronimo Gil for the second out. It was the Orioles' fourth stolen base of the game.
Bordick then silenced the crowd by pulling a high fastball down the left-field line. On television replays, his ball appeared to land very close to the line, and third base umpire Alfonso Marquez called it a fair ball. Matthews scored easily from second base.
"I knew it was going to be close and [third base coach Tom Trebelhorn] told me it hit on the left side of the chalk line," Bordick said. "So it's good to have a little luck on your side, too."
Rivera fell to 1-7 with a 4.47 ERA in his career against the Orioles. No other team has beaten Rivera more than twice.
"I don't know why," Hargrove said. "He's tough. It's just one of those things, [but] I hope it keeps up."
Julio, who has made nothing look easy of late, gave up a leadoff single to Rondell White in the ninth inning, but retired the next three batters to end the game.
Ponson's final line read like this: Seven-plus innings, four hits, three earned runs, five walks, five strikeouts.
Working quickly, and relying heavily on his slider, Ponson breezed through the first three innings, retiring nine of the 10 batters he faced, and throwing just 38 pitches. The Yankees stretched him out a bit in the fourth inning, when Giambi (five pitches) and Posada (nine pitches) drew two-out walks.
Ponson re-established his rhythm in the fifth inning, quickly getting two outs, but with a 2-2 count to Johnson, he fired a pitch that sailed over catcher Gil's head. It was a sign trouble was coming. Ponson left his next pitch up in the strike zone, and Johnson launched it 10 rows into the right-field upper deck, knotting the score 1-1.
He walked Ventura to start the seventh inning, and then held his breath as White hit a ball to deep right field.
Right fielder Matthews chased down that ball at the warning track, and Ponson pumped his fist, pointing at Matthews.
"We showed a lot of character as a team," Bordick said. "Yesterday's loss was a tough loss. Sidney really stepped it up, and our bullpen came in and did the job."