O's take surge across border

Hot club avoids trap, tops Toronto, 4-0, as Ponson wins 5th game since break

10-1 stretch lifts club to 56-58

2nd ground-rule double by Roberts gets it done, scores Hairston after steal

August 14, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

TORONTO - For the Orioles, the warning signs were everywhere. Anyone who suffered through the miserable end to last season could feel the eerie similarities last night.

Here they were, riding high after an impressive road series against a playoff contender. Here they were, getting ready for an August date with a last-place opponent. Here they were, in a sterile, echo chamber for a ballpark.

At almost the exact same time a year ago, the Orioles had played masterfully in taking three of four games from the Boston Red Sox, only to get swept in a three-game series at Tampa Bay.

Would the same thing happen this weekend against the Toronto Blue Jays?

Not this time. Sidney Ponson kept the Blue Jays scoreless into the seventh inning, and Brian Roberts hit a tiebreaking double, leading the Orioles to a 4-0 victory before 21,234 at SkyDome.

On one of those nights that tests a team's resolve, the Orioles won for the 10th time in their past 11 games. At 56-58, they climbed to seven games behind Boston in the wild-card race.

"This clubhouse feels pretty good about themselves," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "That's a good sign."

Maybe this will be the year the Orioles don't collapse.

Last August, when they were trying to save Mike Hargrove's job, they morphed into a completely different team on that trip from Boston to Tampa Bay. Their final win at Fenway Park that week improved their record to 57-59.

But the subsequent sweep at Tropicana Field - on the fake grass in front of all those empty seats - lingered as a defining moment for the front office when it fired Hargrove at season's end.

The Orioles hired Mazzilli in large part for the way he answered their questions about how he would handle such a stretch as manager.

So after winning two of three games against the Anaheim Angels, and taking a cross-country flight that didn't get them to their Toronto hotel until 4 a.m., the Orioles found themselves back on the brink.

The Blue Jays have gone 9-19 since the All-Star break to sink to last place in the American League East, while the Orioles have risen from last to third, going 19-10.

But there would be no letdown. Mazzilli held the standard pre-game scouting meeting, eschewing any motivational ploys.

"Everybody was dragging," Ponson said. "But with a 7 o'clock game, by the first pitch, everybody was into it."

Ponson (8-12) locked horns in a pitcher's duel with Blue Jays right-hander Miguel Batista. The Orioles are 6-0 in Ponson's six starts since the break (including one Ponson no-decision), and his growing confidence showed.

He held the Blue Jays to five hits in six-plus innings, lowering his ERA to 5.47. Of the 18 outs he recorded, 12 came on the ground and six came by strikeout. None of them came on fly balls.

"That means my sinker was working," Ponson said.

And the Orioles rewarded him with a victory.

In a prelude to their winning rally, the Orioles saw a break go against them in the fifth inning. With two outs, Jerry Hairston walked, and Roberts followed with a drive to right-center.

Considering Hairston's speed, the Orioles could have taken the lead, but the ball bounced over the outfield wall for a ground-rule double, forcing Hairston to stop at third. Batista got Newhan to ground out, escaping with the game still scoreless.

When the same situation arose in the seventh inning, the Orioles took matters into their own hands. Hairston drew a one-out walk, and stole second base on Mazzilli's signal.

So when Roberts hit another long drive to deep right field, and the ball took the same fortuitous bounce over the wall, it was another ground-rule double. But this time, Hairston scored.

"I can't believe that happened twice," Mazzilli said.

That broke the ice, and then Newhan followed with a broken-bat single to center field, scoring Roberts for a 2-0 lead.

Mazzilli showed his anxiousness, pulling Ponson after Vernon Wells doubled to lead off the seventh inning. Ponson had thrown just 78 pitches, but the Blue Jays had three left-handers scheduled to come to the plate.

"I was shocked," Ponson said. "[Mazzilli] told me he was going to take me out no matter what, even if I struck that guy out. ... But he's the captain, and we won the game."

Mazzilli turned to left-hander B.J. Ryan, who has held lefties to a .078 average. Ryan retired the next three hitters, stranding Wells on third base.

Jason Grimsley retired the side in the eighth, and the Orioles padded their lead in the ninth with RBIs from Melvin Mora and Javy Lopez.

Jorge Julio came on in another non-save situation and closed out the win.

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