Ponson, Orioles roll by Rays

Economical 4-hitter paces 9-1 win to open homestand

1st-place team takes 5th in row

Newcomers Tejada, Lopez, Palmeiro each have 3 hits

April 21, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The Orioles went on letdown alert last night against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

It wound up being a false alarm.

Riding high after a long road trip, the Orioles returned home to face a team that has left them red in the face so many times in recent years, but this time, the Devil Rays extended the joy ride.

Sidney Ponson tossed a four-hitter in a performance that left his pitching coach amazed, and the Orioles got big hits up and down the lineup in a 9-1 victory before 21,902 at Camden Yards.

The Big Three of Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez each had three hits, as the Orioles extended their winning streak to five and maintained their hold on first place in the American League East.

"We just need to keep this momentum going because there's going to be bad times, too," said Palmeiro, who drove in three runs to move past Cal Ripken for 17th place on baseball's all-time RBI list with 1,698. "You have to ride the good times as long as you can, and keep the bad times short."

The Devil Rays, who took two of three from the Orioles earlier this month, still lead the all-time series, 50-48, but on this night, they were no match.

The Orioles grabbed a 1-0 lead on Tejada's first-inning sacrifice fly and pulled away in the third, when B.J. Surhoff delivered a two-run double off Devil Rays starter Mark Hendrickson (0-2).

Ponson (2-0) did the rest.

In his fourth start of the season, he finally turned in a dominant performance, as he threw just 88 pitches, 71 for strikes, in the 23rd complete game of his career.

"I don't even remember the last time that happened," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said of Ponson's 81 percent strike percentage. "That was pretty impressive."

Ponson set the tenor for the night when he struck out Aubrey Huff with an 86-mph changeup to end the first inning. Early in the game, he left some pitches up in the strike zone, but by the third inning, he started to cruise.

It took him 10 pitches to get through the third, nine pitches to get through the fourth, and nine more pitches to get through the fifth.

Trailing 5-0, the Devil Rays finally threatened in the sixth inning when Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli started the inning with singles. But Ponson calmly put out the fire, getting Huff and Robert Fick to ground out to second base and getting Tino Martinez to fly out to center field.

Total damage for that inning: one run, 18 pitches.

Ponson finished the game with just two strikeouts, but that didn't seem to bother him one bit.

"I don't like strikeouts," he said. "When you throw strikeouts, it means you have to throw a lot of pitches. Why throw three, when you can throw one to get an out?"

He did that, too, getting five outs with one pitch. He got seven other outs with two pitches.

With the Orioles leading 8-1, he breezed through the seventh and eighth innings with seven pitches apiece.

For the game, Ponson threw first-pitch strikes to 27 of the 32 batters he faced.

"I was sitting there just amazed," said Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley. "I keep track during the game, and I didn't want to tell Lee how many pitches he had because I didn't want to jinx [Ponson]. I thought he could finish with less than 100, but I didn't know he'd have less than 90."

This wasn't the first time Ponson has done that. He needed just 89 pitches to finish a 4-1 victory in Seattle on July 10.

But the expectations are higher this season, now that he's got his three-year, $22.5 million contract. And after pitching solid, if not spectacular, in his first two outings, he turned in a dud last Thursday in Boston, in a game the Orioles eventually won, 12-7, in 11 innings.

He didn't finish the seventh inning in his first three starts. This time he went the distance.

"I was [ticked] off about my game last game," Ponson said. "I told the bullpen I was going to give them a day off."

Right now, the Orioles are playing so well, nobody wants a day off. This is only the third time since 2000 that they have gone on a five-game winning streak. Their last one turned into a six-game winning streak after last year's All-Star break.

But at 8-4, the Orioles are experiencing some early season highs for the first time in years. This is their best start since they were 10-2 in 1998.

By this point, first place is usually a distant fantasy for the Orioles.

They were 4-8 after 12 games last year, 3-9 two years ago, and 5-7 in 2001.

"The one thing about this lineup is it seems to me that they never have enough," Mazzilli said. "They keep going and going, and that's an important ingredient to have."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Devil Rays' Paul Abbott (1-1, 1.38) vs. Orioles' Matt Riley (1-0, 1.35)

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