O's Ponson completes ascent, 3-2

Young pitcher goes distance for first time, halts Texas rally in 9th

Johnson hits 3-run homer

Rangers' big 3 foiled after Miller visit in 9th

May 22, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Ray Miller had three reasons to remove Sidney Ponson from last night's ninth inning against the Texas Rangers.

Juan Gonzalez. Rafael Palmeiro. Ivan Rodriguez.

But rather than call upon his bullpen, Miller went to the mound to reassure the 22-year-old Ponson that the game was his. Recently criticized for managing too defensively, Miller's gutsy show of confidence was rewarded when Ponson steamrolled the trio with 98-mph heat for the first complete game of his blossoming major-league career and a reaffirmation of a monthlong turnaround.

Ponson (4-3) survived a leadoff walk and a no-out opposite-field double to complete a nerveless 3-2 win before 45,867 at Camden Yards. Catcher Charles Johnson's three-run homer in the seventh inning off Rangers starter Rick Helling (4-5) held up on a night that featured the first dual complete games at Camden Yards since last June 5.

But to Miller, the night's lesson went beyond predictable matchups. Believing in Ponson's mix of velocity and determination, he stayed with the young pitcher against the American League's most intimidating offensive tag team. The reward may extend beyond one night.

"If he has confidence in my pitches, why shouldn't I?" Ponson said.

This was what Miller envisioned when he defied convention last season and pushed for Ponson's promotion to address a decimated staff. Now Ponson is this staff's second-best starter, going at least seven innings while taking a win in four of his last five starts.

"I don't like cold weather. In cold weather I can't throw the ball," said Ponson, who hails from Aruba. "It's slick and I can't get a grip on it. I'm just glad the weather's warming up now and I can throw the way I want."

Miller tutored Ponson after each of his previous two starts. In Cleveland, following a 4 2/3-inning performance pocked by eight earned runs, Miller reminded him about the worth of pitching off the plate. Last Sunday he criticized him for losing his composure during a blowout win in Arlington.

It was then that Ponson benefited from the Orioles' 16-run, 24-hit barrage to pick up an easy decision. The Rangers' only three runs vs. Ponson came on a two-out home run by rookie shortstop Kelly Dransfeldt, since optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma, after Ponson couldn't hold the bag on a would-be inning-ending double play.

"I think he grew up. I jumped him pretty good in Texas," Miller said. "He gave up a couple hits after he screamed on the mound because he missed a base. I said, `Not only do you let the other team know you're a kid but you let everybody behind you [know].' You've got to grow up to be a man."

"They talked to me about that, how I shouldn't get mad. When you get mad, it keeps you from throwing strikes," Ponson said.

Miller did his part, staying with Ponson even with closer Mike Timlin and left-hander Arthur Rhodes ready.

With nobody out and Mark McLemore at third base and Rusty Greer representing the tying run at second, Miller stepped from the dugout. Ponson expected to stay but was also prepared to lobby for himself.

"I was going to ask him for one more chance," remembered Ponson, whose longest previous outing was 7 1/3 innings last Sept. 19 against the New York Yankees. "But Ray came out, told me to calm down, and I did."

Ponson got the inning's first out on Gonzalez's lunging two-strike grounder to third base. McLemore scored a meaningless run to make a 3-2 game.

Palmeiro approached with the tying run at second base. He had given the Rangers a 1-0 lead with a second-inning home run and entered the game batting .431 with nine home runs against right-handed pitching. "The only thought that entered my mind, which you hate to do, is maybe walk the tying run," Miller said.

Ponson ran the count full then froze the former Oriole with a fastball on the outside sliver of the plate. "I don't think it would have mattered if he had swung," said Johnson. "It was one of those pitches that make you tip your hat and give credit to the pitcher."

"He's really come a long way," said Palmeiro. "He's developing into a great pitcher. I hope the best for him because he's a very close friend."

Ponson dispatched Rodriguez on a lazy fly ball to short right field. Ponson strutted from the mound with a keepsake. "I can't describe how I feel tonight," he said.

Certainly a lot better than if Johnson hadn't crashed his fourth home run in five games. Johnson, who managed only one RBI in April, added to his Iron Man act by flipping the game. With runners at second and third and one out, he mashed Helling's 0-1 breaking pitch deep into the left-field bleachers for a game-changing moment.

Johnson has played 16 straight games, including 14 starts, because of an ankle injury to Lenny Webster. Weeks of work with hitting coach Terry Crowley now reap dividends -- a shorter stroke, a force lower in the order and a player no longer distracted by the pressure of making a strong impression.

"Charles has come on. He's come on catching. He's come on hitting," Miller said.

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