ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - With another non-waiver trade deadline behind him, Sidney Ponson had a chance last night to reinforce the Orioles' decision to be patient.
For six innings he did just that, showing exactly why they are so reluctant to part with him. But in the seventh, he showed exactly why he hasn't been able to separate himself from the constant trade rumors.
Ponson earned his fifth victory, but the Orioles had to sweat through a nervous final three innings to get it, as the bullpen came on and preserved a 4-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Tropicana Field.
Chris Richard hit another home run, his second in two games since coming off the disabled list, and Jay Gibbons hit his 20th homer of the season, as the Orioles salvaged a split of the four-game series.
The Orioles are 3-4 two legs into this three-city, 11-game road trip that takes them to Toronto tonight.
Ponson (5-5) won for just the third time in 13 starts. He held the Devil Rays to two runs on four hits in 6 2/3 innings, and aside from the four walks, his line looked pretty solid.
But two of those walks came at a time the Orioles would hope this fifth-year big-leaguer would be learning to thrive. He had a 4-1 lead entering the seventh inning and quickly brought the tying run to the plate with walks to Steve Cox and Ben Grieve.
"Between the sixth and seventh inning, he had a long layoff," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said, "and that's always difficult late in a ballgame when your starting pitcher's been out there 70, 80, 90 pitches. So we were concerned as he went back out. Other than that, Sidney pitched well tonight."
Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley paid Ponson a visit, and Ponson tried to bear down, blowing a fastball by Jared Sandberg for a strikeout and jamming John Flaherty on a pop-up to shortstop. One out from escaping the jam, Ponson left a fastball over the plate, and Chris Gomez hit a run-scoring single up the middle.
That trimmed the margin to 4-2, and Hargrove pulled Ponson even though the Devil Rays had No. 9 hitter Carl Crawford coming to the plate and Ponson had thrown just 95 pitches.
Ponson, who has one complete game this year and hasn't pitched beyond the seventh inning in his past nine starts, said he started thinking about going the distance after the sixth.
"[Hargrove] could have taken me out with two guys on [in the seventh], but he gave me a chance," Ponson said. "I got two outs, but I couldn't get the third out. That's part of the game. We won; that's basically what it's all about, is winning."
Crawford is a left-handed hitter, so Hargrove summoned left-handed reliever B. J. Ryan, who needed all of one pitch to get Crawford to fly out weakly to left field, ending the threat.
Buddy Groom pitched a scoreless eighth, and Jorge Julio survived Tampa Bay's two-out ninth-inning rally to earn his 20th save in 25 chances. Crawford hit a run-scoring double, snapping Julio's streak of 22 scoreless appearances, and had the bases loaded when Brent Abernathy popped to shortstop Melvin Mora, ending the game.
It was Ponson's first victory against Tampa Bay in five tries this season, so it's not as if he hasn't had opportunities to pad his statistics.
"I looked like I was throwing batting practice the first couple starts against them," Ponson said. "Everybody looked like Babe Ruth."
In the early going last night, Ponson was dominant. He struck out the side in the second inning and didn't allow a hit until Crawford reached on an infield single in the third.
The Orioles broke a scoreless tie in the fourth, when Gary Matthews doubled to right field, scoring Chris Singleton from first.
Richard made it 3-0 with a two-run homer in the fifth, an opposite-field shot that sliced just inside the left-field foul pole. Last season, Richard had 15 home runs in 483 at-bats, and he looks like he might be an even bigger power threat this year.
"I don't think we can expect him to hit a home run every night," Hargrove said, "but we'll take it."
Gibbons, who matched Richard for the team lead with 15 home runs last season in just 225 at-bats, made it 4-1 with a bases-empty homer in the sixth.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: SkyDome, Toronto
TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (4-10, 4.62) vs. Blue Jays' Esteban Loaiza (4-6, 5.63)