The sun shone brightly on the Orioles yesterday. They must be home.
In three savory hours after a month that created an unseemly amount of disappointment over the present and speculation over the future, the Orioles embraced a breezy summer night at Camden Yards when they pounded a nemesis for a second straight game, enjoyed the progress of starting pitcher Sidney Ponson and enjoyed a breakout by their team elder.
Their 12-5 win over the Toronto Blue Jays before an announced crowd of 40,876 at Camden Yards also featured a surprise visit by a most interested spectator.
A night of all-around good news included a sighting of injured third baseman Cal Ripken, shown on the matrix while sitting in the broadcast booth after the top of the fifth inning. Ripken gave the crowd a thumbs up, then detailed on radio and TV the pain that eventually forced him from last Tuesday's game in Boston and landed him on the disabled list for the third time in two years. Ripken said he will spend much of the next two weeks on his back after receiving a cortisone injection in Cleveland last Wednesday.
"I was hoping it would decide for me by either feeling better or breaking. And it broke," Ripken said.
While not saying what he would do, Ripken suggested that his return from the latest episode would be less aggressive than earlier this season, when he returned to the lineup within a week of receiving a first injection.
"In order to derive any benefit, I have to be flat on my back a while. My goal is to be back in 15 days and be ready to play," said Ripken.
His teammates were ready for the Blue Jays and starting pitcher Chris Carpenter last night, pounding four home runs, including two by 41-year-old designated hitter Harold Baines, in the first five innings. Baines, who entered with six home runs in 175 at-bats, used his seventh to tie the game 1-1 in the third inning, then capped a five-run fifth inning with his eighth for a 10-1 bulge.
Baines' home runs verified what has been a gradual turnaround to his three-month struggle. Friday night, he drove two hits off left-handed pitching, something he has rarely seen this season.
"I don't call 1-for-4 hitting," said Baines. "When you go two [hits], two, two, that's hitting. My last two at-bats tonight were lousy. You don't want to have any bad at-bats, but that's not possible."
By Baines' definition, he's starting to hit. He has hit in 10 of 12 games to shatter a 5-for-45 funk.
The win was the Orioles' fourth in five games and once again paints them as a dangerous team within Camden's intimate confines. They are 22-12 at home, second-best in the league to the Seattle Mariners. They have won 12 of 16 at home since May 14.
In a four-run fourth inning that chased Carpenter, catcher Charles Johnson contributed a three-run homer five hitters after first baseman Will Clark homered for the second time in as many nights. Johnson's 18th home run leaves him only one shy of his career high with more than a half-season remaining, and his 43 RBIs have invigorated an All-Star candidacy at the same time the Orioles are actively shopping him for trade.
"We're playing at home so we're playing better," said Clark. "And, no, I have no explanation why."
Jilted from his fifth win by last Sunday's eighth-inning bullpen collapse in Seattle, Ponson (5-4) left no room for suspense while being supported by at least 10 runs for the fifth time this season. He offered his sixth quality start in his last eight appearances and gave further indication of his growing capacity as a strikeout pitcher.
Two starts after striking out a career-high nine in Oakland, Ponson got there again. Entering June, Ponson had struck out eight in only one of 63 career starts. He has struck out at least that many in three of his past six starts.
Ponson referred to a "secret weapon" as responsible for his newfound success. The league is quickly learning that the homer-prone pitcher of the past is now willing to challenge hitters above the belt, daring them to catch up to his power assortment.
"Sidney now believes he can elevate the ball and have success," said pitching coach Sammy Ellis. "Before, he was getting ahead in counts but throwing too many strikes without using the entire zone. At this level, you have to get ahead and be able to throw balls. Good gosh, with a 95-, 96-, 97-mph fastball and with his movement, he can do that."
"He's using the whole zone now," said Johnson. "Not just in and out but up and down."
"I have a new weapon," said Ponson. "It's working for me, thanks to CJ and Greg [Myers]. ... They know these hitters better than I do."
The Blue Jays entered the series as the league's most powerful offense, and they have homered three times in two losses. However, the Orioles have stifled them by walking only two. It marks just the second time this season the Orioles have scored 20 runs in consecutive games.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Blue Jays' Kelvim Escobar (6-9, 5.30) vs. O's Mike Mussina (5-7, 3.99)