The race is on: O's lead a half game after 6-2 loss


TORONTO - They left Canadian soil last night, their charter headed to Atlanta for an interleague series with the Braves, knowing their division lead was safe, the closest team in the standings being idle. For the Orioles, that realization had to bring some comfort, though probably no more than an airline blanket.

Their lead is just as thin.

The Orioles moved into sole possession of first place in the American League East back on April 23 with a victory at Rogers Centre, the same building that has caused them so much grief two months later, including last night's 6-2 loss to the Blue Jays.

Good news didn't come until after the game, when the team announced that the magnetic resonance imaging test on B.J. Surhoff's left side didn't reveal anything more than a strained rib cage muscle and a bruise. He'll rejoin the team today.

The roof was open again last night. So is the debate over whether the Orioles (42-30) have enough stamina to win a pennant race.

Without taking the field last night, the Red Sox crept within a half game of the Orioles, who fell behind 2-1 in the second, squandered a few early chances against former Cy Young winner Roy Halladay and lost for the third time in the four-game series.

"We've just got to continue doing what we've been doing so far," Sammy Sosa said. "Injuries have been a big part of our season, but pitching, defense and offense are how we've gotten here. We've got to continue to fight, go out and play good games and not worry about nothing else."

The starting pitching raised some concerns in this series. Sidney Ponson's outing last night was the longest of the four games, and he left after 5 1/3 with the Blue Jays ahead 6-1.

Ponson (7-5) surrendered three straight singles to open the second, the last by Gregg Zaun tying the game at 1. Orlando Hudson's single gave Toronto the lead, and Ponson was charged with four more runs in the sixth - including two on Hudson's double.

"He didn't have his best stuff but he battled," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "They hit a lot of ground balls that just went through. Sidney is a maximum-effort guy and he gives you everything he has when he's out there."

Ponson, who wouldn't speak to reporters after the game, gave up 11 hits, tying his season high, and has allowed 31 in his past three starts covering 18 1/3 innings. He has received the sixth-highest run support in the league, almost seven a game, but Halladay shut down the Orioles after the first until Miguel Tejada's run-scoring single in the eighth.

"Everything he threw was a strike and everything had movement," Jay Gibbons said of Halladay. "It was what I've seen for five years."

Halladay has 11 career wins against the Orioles, more than he has accumulated against any opponent, but he was 0-2 with a 7.43 ERA this season, allowing 11 earned runs in 13 1/3 innings.

"He was his usual self tonight, throwing strikes, always ahead in the count, making quality pitches when he had to," catcher Sal Fasano said.

With Melvin Mora still unavailable, Chris Gomez made another start at third and moved up to second in the order. He was instrumental in the Orioles' manufacturing a run in the first after Brian Roberts singled and stole second. His ground ball to the right side allowed Roberts to advance to third, and Tejada's bouncer gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead.

The Orioles had another opportunity to score against Halladay (11-4) in the third inning after David Newhan reached on an infield hit and Fasano pushed a single to right field with the count full. With no outs, Roberts looped a broken-bat single into center, but Vernon Wells threw out Newhan, who was waved home by Tom Trebelhorn.

"Trebs thought he had a good read on it. You've got to trust him because he has a better angle that we did," Mazzilli said.

The leadoff hitter reached base in three of the first four innings against Halladay, but the Orioles couldn't piece together a big inning. Now they must function with a smaller division lead.

"We knew we weren't going to run away with this thing," Gibbons said.

"We're still in first," Mazzilli said. "That's the way I look at it."

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