Birds in flight

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 1:11 PM ET

Boston won the World Series, the Yankees always make off-season news and the Blue Jays had a better spring training record.

So it might have been easy to overlook the Baltimore Orioles in that mash, but not anymore. With a clean weekend sweep of Toronto, 7-1 yesterday and 24-7 in three games, the O's set up another early American League East first-place showdown with the Red Sox this week. Boston shut the O's out back-to-back a few days ago, but now Baltimore owns a one-game lead.

"I don't think we're being ignored now," designated hitter Jay Gibbons said yesterday as the O's improved to 12-7. "But we made some moves too in the winter. Anytime Sammy Sosa changes teams, it's going to make news.

"But the real surprise has been our pitching."

The staff have reduced home runs to eight in the past 14 games after nine were swatted in the first five games. Sidney Ponson followed Canadian Erik Bedard's seven-inning gem on Saturday with a complete game five-hitter yesterday.

"It was a big game to pitch like he did, going up against (Jays' ace Roy) Halladay, and then giving the bullpen a complete rest," Baltimore manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Our offence...was our offence."

Sosa, unruffled by half the Rogers Centre booing his every at-bat, had just two singles in the series before taking Halladay and Justin Speier over the left-field fence yesterday. The longer Speier shot was estimated at 421 feet.

"I was almost contemplating giving (Sosa) a day off," Mazzilli said with a laugh. "It's new turf here and I wanted to make sure he wasn't feeling achy. But he said he felt good and he sure as heck did."

Sosa now has 578 career homers, with multiple homers in 67 games, tying him for third with Mark McGwire, behind Babe Ruth (72) and Barry Bonds (68).

"From one side, it's very nice to be in that category, but right now is no time to celebrate, because it's just the beginning of the year," Sosa said.

The former Chicago Cub had last cleared the fence here with the White Sox in 1991.

"It's been a long time," said Sosa, who has homered in 42 different parks in his career and could hardly be expected to remember details of 14 years ago. "Halladay's a great pitcher, don't get me wrong, but we're playing good right now, with the lineup we have and Sidney coming out as he did today."

Mazzilli was not convinced this is the best the club has looked in his two years at the helm, citing an eight-game winning streak last year and the losses to Boston early this week.

"But we've come off two losses and won three," he said. "It's a very confident team."


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