BOSTON - This really happened last night: The Orioles played a contending team and resembled the better club.
Pitching efficiently like the staff ace he may soon become, Sidney Ponson continued his September push by making the Boston Red Sox appear like a team fleeing any chance of reaching the postseason. While the Orioles have little tangible to play for, it was the Red Sox who went quietly in the Orioles' 3-1 win before a sold-out but ill-tempered crowd of 32,708 at Fenway Park.
The Orioles parlayed home runs by Jerry Hairston and Greg Myers into enough offense to win for the fifth time in 16 games. It also gave Ponson (9-12) his first career win over the Red Sox, his second complete-game victory in three starts and another lesson in controlled aggression.
Instead of this summer's overheated 23-year-old hypnotized by strikeouts, Ponson gave one of the most mature performances of his three-year career.
He struck out only three but walked only one, testimony to a newfound approach that less velocity is sometimes more.
He trusted his defense and was rewarded with a complete-game four-hitter.
He retired his last 18 hitters faced and made a town cry.
"I'm pitching. I'm not throwing the ball," said Ponson, whose epiphany came in a Sept. 6 start in Minnesota. "I'm not throwing as hard. I can throw hard when I want to. I'm throwing strikes on the corners. I'm throwing curveballs for strikes. We'll see what happens."
"With a young person, you want to see him get better as the year goes on," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "There were times early in the season and in the middle of the season that Sidney did not have good outings, but he seems to have learned from each outing."
Ponson unveiled a split-fingered pitch in Minnesota and has been more reliant on off-speed pitches since. His pattern has been to use a fastball in the low-90s then dial up in the late innings.
"He still gets excited. But ever since that game he's been a lot more consistent in his approach. And I think it's paid dividends for him," said Hargrove.
Last night's loss shoved the Red Sox to the brink of extinction. Their fans now boo them mercilessly. Their manager and leading run producer are at war. Intrigue has replaced Pedro Martinez as the city's fixation.
It was Ramon Martinez (10-8) who challenged the Orioles last night. His seven innings might have been good enough on most nights but not when opposed by Ponson. The Orioles sent only six more than the minimum 27 hitters to the plate but made it stand with tight defense.
"We played a good game tonight, but we need to play like this every night," said Hairston, whose 2-for-4 game extended his recent run to 8-for-21 after an 0-for-24 nightmare.
The Red Sox have sprouted nothing but problems this week. First, they lost three of four games to the Cleveland Indians in back-to-back doubleheaders. One of the losses came in ace Pedro Martinez's first-ever defeat to the Indians. Then, outfielder Carl Everett went on his latest rampage Thursday, blasting manager Jimy Williams and receiving the support of general manager Dan Duquette. The Red Sox, demoralized and almost buried by wild-card math, seemed to trudge to their positions last night.
Ponson met them with purpose. Unlike last season's tired finish, Ponson is trying to squeeze every last positive out of a season that has gone from good to bad to worse and back to good.
Arbitration-eligible after this season, Ponson stands to improve significantly on this season's $400,000 salary that the club assigned him in spring training.
When the Orioles renewed Ponson's contract last March, they told him they would entertain negotiations over a multi-year deal that would allow him to avoid the often-unsettling arbitration process. Those negotiations have yet to begin.
Ponson showed no fear against a team that had blasted him in two earlier starts this season. The most disturbing was a five-inning showing July 20 in which he surrendered a season-high-tying eight earned runs and 11 hits to absorb an 11-7 loss. Ponson entered 0-4 with a career 6.57 ERA against the Red Sox.
Ponson has covered at least seven innings in nine of his past 11 starts.
Last night, he made it look deceptively easy, holding the Red Sox without an extra-base hit while striking out only one through six innings.
"Sometimes you get to a point in the game with guys on second and third and you try to throw 100 miles an hour. Now I'm hitting corners and letting them get themselves out," said Ponson.
A double play helped him in the first inning and Hairston's pirouetting grab-and-throw kept a runner from reaching scoring position in a potentially difficult fourth. Ponson helped himself with a four-pitch sixth inning that all but assured his ability to complete his sixth game.
The Red Sox led, 1-0, after the third inning thanks to Ponson's only lapse and a sloppy attempt by center fielder Eugene Kingsale. With two outs, Ponson walked right fielder Trot Nixon to force Manny Alexander into scoring position.
Darren Lewis followed with a line drive at Kingsale. Unable to make a quck read on the ball, Kingsale broke a step late. Unable to get to the fly ball, Kingsale attempted to short-hop the bounce, but only deflected the ball for an error as Alexander scored. Even the misplay revealed a subtle positive as right fielder Luis Matos backed up the play to minimize the damage. Hargrove called it "a winning play."
The Orioles then contradicted their recent reputation as a scratch offense. Hairston drove his fifth home run into the netting above the Green Monster to force a fourth-inning tie. An inning later, Myers crushed a one-out pitch into the Red Sox bullpen with Chris Richard aboard for his second home run in six days.
This time the Orioles squeezed the most of their opportunities against Martinez. They stranded only one runner through six innings and left their first runner in scoring position in the eighth.
Baseball's worst road team won for the third time in four games at Fenway Park this season. The Red Sox, now a third-place team, are only 11-13 this month.