Write last night down as one of the good days -- a stifling, hazy night when line drives found gaps, a slumping lineup strong-armed an early lead it held onto for nine innings and Sidney Ponson could win at Camden Yards for the first time in more than 10 months.
This was how it was supposed to be.
With a three-run first inning preceding a serviceable, sometimes dominant start from Ponson (4-3), the Orioles ended their three-game losing streak with an 11-4 pounding of Curt Schilling and the Philadelphia Phillies before a decidedly mixed sellout crowd of 48,443 at Camden Yards. Three first- inning doubles, streaking Albert Belle's latest offensive donation and Cal Ripken's 415th career home run provided a 7-1 lead against Schilling (1-4). Eight innings from Ponson and a solid inning from Mike Timlin protected it.
Belle gave the Orioles four RBIs to go with three from Ripken, who played last night with a noticeable limp and a lightning bat. Belle and Ripken accounted for half the Orioles' 12 hits.
"We have a team that has the capability to score runs," said Ripken of a lineup that currently ranks 12th in the American League in runs. "I think when you look at our offense at the end of the year, you'll say it's a pretty good offense."
It was pretty good last night against Schilling, as the Orioles broke out of an extended slump with their most runs since a 12-6 win over the Chicago White Sox on April 25.
Schilling is not the same pitcher who threw a 4-2 complete game win at the Orioles in Philadelphia last July 9. The National League innings monster has since undergone shoulder surgery that prevented him from making his first start until April 30 and has left him vulnerable since. Last night extended Schilling's winless streak to six starts during which he has surrendered a combined 31 earned runs and 65 base runners in 34 2/3 innings. The Orioles showed him no mercy, raking him for 10 hits in five-plus innings.
"I just threw way too many balls out over the plate tonight. I threw the ball right down the middle to Cal and look what happened," said Schilling, a former Oriole who made his first appearance at Camden Yards. "I didn't make a lot of good pitches when they counted. There's just no other excuses. It's starting to sound like a broken record."
Ponson followed up last Sunday's wrenching 1-0 road loss to the Montreal Expos with a game blemished only by two home runs -- Mike Lieberthal's bases-empty shot in the second inning and Bobby Abreu's three-run homer to pull the Phillies within 7-4 in the sixth.
But even his mistakes allowed Ponson to demonstrate progress. Rather than implode, Ponson stiffened.
"I gave up one, but I stepped off, got off the mound after getting pounded, went back up and did my job," Ponson said. "That's what I'm looking for getting better and better every start."
"Everybody matures. I think Sidney is starting down that road," said manager Mike Hargrove.
Once hindered by a volcanic temper, Ponson has demonstrated marked improvement since committing late last month to better manage his frustrations. Last night was his fourth straight start of at least eight innings, after he produced only two such outings among his first nine.
"I sat and watched when Abreu hit the home run. I saw him gather himself, keep it right there, get back on the mound and keep control of the inning. I think it was a big step for him. He's got great stuff. But he didn't try to throw every pitch tonight 190 miles per hour," Hargrove said.
"He throws a real nice ball," said Phillies manager Terry Francona. "I know they love him and I can definitely see why. He can certainly reach back. He's throwing 90 or 91 but then he pops it up to 96 in the late innings when he needs to."
Ponson was 7-6 at Camden Yards last season but none of his wins came there after Aug 5. Before last night, Ponson had not won in his last 10 home starts, including a May 24 no-decision when he allowed three earned runs in eight innings to the Seattle Mariners. This season's home ERA of 5.65 prior to last night contrasted to a 4.19 road figure. Four times this season, Ponson had left a game with a lead only to watch a blown save erase his decision.
"Sidney started the game today to finish the game," said Hargrove. "But the Conditions and the fact he threw 116 pitches ganged up on him."
The Orioles' offense, which cracked four bases-empty home runs in Friday's 9-5 loss, never let up against Schilling. Doubles from Brady Anderson, Delino DeShieids and B.J. Surhoff, followed by Ripken's two-out single, constructed the three-run first. In the second, a leadoff walk and back-to-back singles by Charles Johnson and Anderson created a bases-loaded jam with no one out. Schilling almos't wriggled free before Belle lined a two-run single on a full count, bumping the lead to 5-1.
Belle has shown signs of waking from his annual spring hibernation. He extended his hitting streak to 12 games. He has five home runs and 11 RBIs in the tear.
"He's swinging in better counts. He's not trying to force the issue too soon. People that have the ability that Albert has with the bat, it's just a matter of time," Hargrove' said.
Belle offered no comment except to put a finger to his lips.
Ripken jacked the lead to 7-1 in the fifth inning when he hooked his 13th home run of the season into the left-field bleachers with two outs with Belle aboard. For Ripken, it was his third home run in four games and his ninth in his last 27. Despite playing with a back that has given him little relief since spring training, he trails Mike Bordick by only two RBI's for the team lead and is only five home runs shy of last season's total.
Ponson handed the three-run lead to Timlin in the ninth, but just barely. The Phillies threatened him with consecutive warning-track fly balls to end the eighth inning, including Scott Rolen's two-out shot that backed Anderson to the center-field wall.
Having been on the wrong end of bad fortune earlier this season, Ponson strutted from the mound, looked into his dugout and flashed a thumbs-up.
This, after all, was how it was
Opponent: Philadelphia Phillies
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Phillies' Andy Ashby (2-6, 5.86) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (3-6, 3.86)