MINNEAPOLIS -- On the day after the Orioles celebrated another magic moment in team history, right-hander Sidney Ponson gave them a brilliant glimpse of the possibilities ahead.
Ponson gave up just four hits and cut through the Twins' lineup with such ease that the game was over in 2 hours and 8 minutes. He threw 114 pitches -- 74 for strikes -- on the way to his seventh complete game and his first major-league shutout.
"He threw strikes and used his changeup a lot," said manager Mike Hargrove. "[Catcher] Willie Morales did a good job of getting him to throw the changeup. If you can get your changeup over and your curveball over and throw the fastball 96 mph, you've got a chance to pitch pretty well."
Ponson couldn't have picked a better time to put the hammer down. The Orioles staggered into the weekend with a string of four straight late-inning losses that had all but nullified a very uplifting opening week. The club celebrated Cal Ripken's 3,000th career hit with a 6-4 victory on Saturday night, but still needed a victory yesterday to keep the first road trip of the season from being a minor disaster.
"We get to go home happy now," said Hargrove. "It was a well-pitched game. It capped off what started out to be an ugly road trip. It still wasn't pretty, but it ended on the right note."
The game represented a dramatic turnaround for Ponson, who had a dismal spring and did not pitch particularly well in his first two starts of the regular season. It didn't hurt that the Orioles' offense took the pressure off with five runs off Twins starter Joe Mays in the first inning.
"Definitely," Ponson said. "The thing is, [with a big lead] you have to keep your concentration and go get those guys. The guys played great behind me. I needed to shut them down and, thank God, I did."
It all came down to the first inning. Brady Anderson opened the game with a home run off the right-field facade, the 37th time he has led off a game with a home run. Mike Bordick followed with a single and B. J. Surhoff doubled before Albert Belle delivered a line single to center to score two more runs.
Mays would not record an out until second baseman Todd Walker stabbed Harold Baines' sharp one-hopper up the middle, and the Twins starter would not settle down until after fill-in third baseman Jeff Conine launched his second home run of the season to increase the Orioles' lead to five.
The crowd of 14,066 would not see another run cross the plate. Mays engineered an amazing about-face after giving up solid hits to five of the first six Orioles hitters. He retired 14 of the next 15 batters and allowed just three hits over his remaining seven innings of work.
"We had a game plan. I don't know if they had a microphone in here or not," Mays said. "We were trying to be aggressive and throw the ball inside. Somehow they knew. They were swinging the bats."
Ponson never was in serious trouble, but he nearly sparked a brawl when he hit center fielder Torii Hunter on the hand with a pitch in the second inning. Hunter shouted angrily toward the mound as he headed for first base and Ponson gave it right back, before home plate umpire Mike Winters and first base umpire Fieldin Culbreth moved in to defuse the situation.
"I didn't want to hit him, but if he thought that, that's his problem," Ponson said. "I'm not going to hit a guy on the hand on purpose. It's too easy to break somebody's hand if you do that. If I wanted to hit the guy, I would have hit him in the back.
"I have no reason to hit the guy. I just want to pitch in and out. He dove right into it. It ticked me off because he started yelling at me like I did it on purpose."
It took Ponson a few minutes to settle down, but he retired 13 of the next 15 batters he faced and finished up so efficiently that there was never a question of the bullpen coming into play.
Maybe it was a good day for the beleaguered relief corps to take off. The bullpen blew big leads in three of the first four games of the road trip, but did successfully close out Saturday night's victory.
"You're going to have a few of those games where teams come from behind," said first baseman Will Clark, who returned to the lineup after two days on the sidelines with an upper back spasm. "Every team goes through that, but you don't want to make a habit of it. Even during that four-game stretch, the offense has not slacked off. The offense has kept the pressure on. The first six hitters in the first inning hit the ball right on the button."
Conine, who filled in for Clark the first two games of the series and gave Ripken the day off yesterday, hit safely in all three games of the series -- including a three-hit performance on Friday night. Belle had three more hits yesterday and seems determined to shake his reputation as a slow starter. He raised his average to .326.
The victory allowed the Orioles to improve their record to 7-5 after falling back to .500 on Friday night. They open a brief three-game series tonight against the struggling Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Camden Yards.
"I think we've played so well," said Anderson. "I don't think that 5-5 was indicative of how we've played as a team. We just ran into a Kansas City team when they were hot. It's nice to get our record back to a respectable level."
Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05 TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Devil Rays' Dave Eiland (0-0, 10.80) vs. O's Pat Rapp (1-0, 3.75)
Marking a milestone
A special section commemorates Cal Ripken's 3,000th hit. Section E.