SHREVEPORT, La. -- After three quarters at Independence Stadium last night, the Baltimore Stallions seemed to be in cruise control. They held a three-touchdown lead over the Shreveport Pirates, the home fans were silent, quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver was struggling to play with a finger injury on his throwing hand, and victory looked like a foregone conclusion.
But the Pirates refused to concede. Sparked by Chris Wright's lost fumble on a punt return early in the fourth quarter, Shreveport scored touchdowns on its first two possessions of the fourth quarter, leaving the Stallions scrambling to escape with a 24-17 victory before 12,455.
The victory, the fifth straight for Baltimore (10-3), moved the Stallions within a victory of clinching a playoff spot and kept them firmly in first place in the Canadian Football League's Southern Division. It also proved to the Stallions that last-place Shreveport (4-9) is somewhat better than its record indicates.
"People expected us to just come in here and blow people out. But I've been in this league long enough to know how tough it is to win in someone else's yard. They [Pirates] have some quality athletes," Baltimore quarterback Tracy Ham said.
"We know how to shoot ourselves in the foot, but we win ballgames. Those little mistakes baffle me," Ham added. "But you don't have to win like a beauty queen. You just have to win."
The Stallions won because their defense and special teams, led by linebacker Matt Goodwin and punter Josh Miller, buried the Pirates throughout a first half in which Baltimore scored 18 unanswered points.
They won because Miller averaged 57 yards on six punts, keeping the Pirates at bay. They won because Goodwin intercepted a pass, stopped a promising drive by forcing a fumble near the Baltimore goal line, then blocked a punt that teammate Brian White scooped up and ran 20 yards with for a touchdown -- all in the first half.
Mainly, they won because Ham played another outstanding game and kept his cool during the game's critical sequence.
Ham's leadership was badly needed after the Pirates had cut Baltimore's 24-3 lead to 24-17 with 3:18 left in the game.
Shreveport did it on a daring call. On third-and-five at the Baltimore 38, backup quarterback Mike Pawlawski, who traded the position with Tolliver throughout the second half, pitched out to wide receiver Wayne Walker on an end-around play. Walker raced around the right side and down the sideline untouched for the score.
That was preceded by running back Norman Bradford's 28-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, after Wright's fumbled punt return. Tolliver, who began the game with six straight incompletions, set up the score with an 18-yard completion to Freeman Baysinger. Tolliver overcame a broken right pinky finger to complete eight of 17 attempts for 87 yards.
But Ham was the star of the evening. He completed 16 of 28 passes for 269 yards. He rushed 11 times for 57 yards. On the same night, he went over 6,000 yards rushing and 28,000 yards (( passing in his career.
And Ham saved the victory with clutch play in crunch time. After Walker's score, a botched kickoff return gave Baltimore the ball at its 11.
Ham dumped an 8-yard pass to Robert Drummond. Running back Mike Pringle, who returned after missing last week's game with a hamstring injury and rushed for 45 yards, gained four for a first down.
Ham scrambled for 12 yards. After Pringle was dropped in the backfield for a 3-yard loss, Ham produced the game's biggest play, when he ducked under the rush of safety Anthony Shelton, stepped up in the pocket and hit slotback Chris Armstrong for a 26-yard gain over the middle.
Two plays later, Ham ran four yards for another first down. After that, the Stallions ran out the clock.
"There was no quit in them [Pirates], and that's a credit to them," Baltimore coach Don Matthews said. "They got the momentum back in the fourth quarter, and it's tough to get momentum back. That was a great third-down call [on the touchdown]. And our drive at the end was awesome."
Said Ham: "The safety left that hole open down the middle, and Chris made the right read. That's Chris."
The Stallions also won on a night when their defense, despite scoring a touchdown, knocking out Tolliver for most of the first half and shutting out the Pirates for 40 minutes, gave up an uncharacteristically high 197 yards rushing.
Martin Patton gained 97 yards on 15 carries, and Bradford added 45 yards on three carries.
Baltimore entered the game giving up an average of 63 rushing yards, second best in the CFL.
STALLIONS' NEXT GAME
Opponent: Shreveport Pirates
Date: Next Saturday
Site: Memorial Stadium
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WGRX (100.7 FM)