Ponson aces O's test as Royal pain Arm stiff in warm-ups, maturing rookie works his way past K.C., 9-2

Hammonds paces 16-hit attack

'Here you learn to pitch when don't feel best'

August 03, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The education of Sidney Ponson continues. Yesterday's lesson plan included Bullpen Preservation 101 and a crash course in pitching through discomfort. Ponson furthered his reputation as a prodigy.

The Aruban rookie (5-6) made his 12th major-league start a painful experience for the Kansas City Royals. In his longest major-league appearance, Ponson controlled the Royals despite allowing 12 base runners in seven innings. His reward was a 9-2 win, moving the Orioles to 18-5 since the All-Star break, and an even deeper impression on an organization that considers him untouchable.

July represented a series of small steps for Ponson. Yesterday was a leap.

Ponson struggled to warm before the game. He felt out of sorts in the bullpen and complained to pitching coach Mike Flanagan of stiffness. Rather than give him consolation, Flanagan made it part of the day's lesson.

"In the minor leagues, you can always go maximum effort. You don't have to think about any other variables. Here, you learn things," said Flanagan, the teacher. "You learn to pitch when you don't feel your best. You learn to pitch a little bit differently with a lead. You pitch a little bit differently than you do in a close game. You learn to pitch when your bullpen is pretty much on fumes. It's a lot to digest, but he's taking it all in."

Ponson's 123 pitches earned him extra credit from a coaching staff that had watched three previous starters combine for only 10 innings, including Saturday's four-inning outing by Scott Kamieniecki.

"It was on him today," Flanagan said.

Beforehand, Ponson felt lost in his delivery. He became confused and frustrated and the game still hadn't started. Flanagan reminded him part of becoming a professional is sometimes making do with less.

"I felt stiff, but I got through it," Ponson said. "I think I handled it pretty well."

He received plenty of support. The Orioles mashed 16 hits, including at least one from every starter, and tied a season high with seven doubles.

"My confidence is growing every start. I'm making fewer and fewer mistakes every time out," he said. "If I do that, I think I can be a very important factor in helping this ballclub. Everybody is hot, too. Everybody is hitting. We're playing good defense."

Right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds' first-inning home run off Royals starter Glendon Rusch (6-14) enabled Ponson to make every pitch with a lead. A six-hit third inning bumped the lead to 5-0 and Eric Davis' two-run double in the fourth pumped it to 7-0. The hit also extended Davis' career-high hitting streak to 20 games, only four off the club record.

Hammonds, making only his sixth start since May 31, finished with three hits. So did Cal Ripken. The Orioles had extra-base hits in six innings and lifted their team average to a season-high .277. The Orioles turned two double plays early and were error-free. Ripken began an inning-ending turn to get Ponson out of a dangerous third inning with runners on first and second.

Ponson heaved two wild pitches and walked four, but he sustained his only damage with two outs in the fifth inning. After the Royals had run wild for eight stolen bases Saturday night, Ponson held them without any yesterday. For only the fifth time he escaped the first inning without allowing a run.

"You talk so much about a guy. After two or three months you start to think of a guy as 28 or 29 years old and he's still 21," said manager Ray Miller.

"Growing pains" is how Miller describes this season for Ponson. He carries a 5.70 ERA mostly because of his last two starts in June, both losses, in which he surrendered 14 earned runs in 9 2/3 innings. Since, Ponson has won all four of his decisions and allowed 17 earned runs in 36 innings, a respectable 4.25 ERA. He had never thrown more than 100 pitches in a major-league game until yesterday.

"He's a very talented kid. You watch from center field and you see some great stuff," said Miller, able to enjoy the vantage point from his office TV following his third-inning ejection. "I told him every day is a growing pain. Every day you learn something about the big leagues. More important, you learn something about yourself."

The only criticism given Ponson so far is he throws too many strikes. He is considered fearless. Miller says Ponson's fluency in several languages and his ability to communicate with a wide range of cultures add to his precocious makeup. In any language, Ponson's message appears to be: "Here it is; hit it."

"My biggest thing is to keep the ball down. If I'm going to bounce it, bounce it," Ponson said. "The first couple months I was here, every changeup and every curveball I threw had to be a strike. That's where I got hurt. Sometimes I had to bounce a curveball. Now I do," he said.

Ponson now holds the No. 4 spot in the rotation. However, the club would like to follow Friday's acquisition of Juan Guzman from the Toronto Blue Jays with another veteran starter, allowing Ponson to continue his growth as a No. 5.

"That's a very talented guy. With every organization we talked to the last two weeks, his name was the first one to come up," Miller said.

The Seattle Mariners wanted Ponson and Ryan Minor in return for Randy Johnson. The Orioles said no thanks. The St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos also pushed for him, but the Orioles already have written Ponson's name into next year's rotation. The writing is in pen.

"I feel good knowing that because I think the team sees something in me. They like me a lot. And I like being here," said Ponson.

"I give everything I've got for this team. One day I might get traded. But until then, I'll give everything I've got for this team so nobody can go out and say bad things about me."

Pub Date: 8/03/98

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