Ponson's maturity, skill striking positive chord

Inside the Orioles

22-year-old's impression favorable, likely lasting

June 13, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- In the last two months, Sidney Alton Ponson has experienced much: another crash course in pitching at the highest level, the meltdown of a high-salaried team assigned lofty expectations and the death of his maternal grandmother in Aruba. Any one of those might have been enough to interrupt a 22-year-old's rise. None has stopped Ponson.

Ponson's five-hitter against the Atlanta Braves on Friday represented more than his second complete game of the season -- it's one-quarter of the Orioles' total this year.

Lowering his ERA to a staff-best 3.99, he reinforced an impression that caused the club to declare him untouchable during trade talks last winter.

In two months Ponson has matured both as a pitcher and a professional. Manager Ray Miller and his staff have been most impressed by Ponson's resilience, a trait that may serve him even better than his 98 mph fastball.

Ponson, who doesn't turn 23 until Nov. 2, doesn't become arbitration-eligible until after next season.

Indeed, Ponson is the poster child for what player development can mean to an organization, even one as free-spending as the Orioles. At $250,000, Ponson is the lowest-paid player on the club other than recently acquired backup catcher Mike Figga. With the expected arrival of Matt Riley by 2001, an organization that pursued Todd Stottlemyre and Randy Johnson last winter may have cost near-certainty for at least three of its starting pitchers for the midterm.

"He has a chance to be an exceptional pitcher," Miller says. "If he keeps his weight where it needs to be, he's shown incredible ability. It's pretty impressive when you can look up in the ninth inning and the kid's throwing 97, 98 miles per hour."

Miller cautions against what Fed chairman Alan Greenspan might say is "irrational exuberance." Yet the manager and his pitching coaches, Mike Flanagan and Bruce Kison, have perhaps received their loudest plaudits for their handling of Ponson.

Ponson reached the major leagues last April out of necessity when Mike Mussina suffered a blister on his pitching hand. Miller didn't care that Ponson had only one start at Triple-A and had pitched only 81 2/3 innings since 1996 because of elbow soreness. Ponson's overpowering arm was enough to overcome any questions about maturity and stamina.

Those questions remain but to a far smaller degree. Ponson's sluggish start this season was attributed to his shaky off-season conditioning. As of January he had gained almost 30 pounds and relapsed to about 27 percent body fat. Another trip to a weight clinic began a process that continues today. Ponson has overcome similar obstacles before.

Elbow tendinitis that cut short his 1997 season caused him to abandon a split-finger pitch. Ponson now wields a two- and four-seam fastball, an overhand curve, slider and change-up.

Ponson's problems would be considered assets by many others. Miller has occasionally criticized him for working too fast and throwing too many strikes. Ponson has accepted the criticisms and made adjustments.

"He's gaining confidence. I see it as a very positive confidence," says Orioles catcher Charles Johnson. "He's moving in the right direction. He's concerned about improving his pitches instead of getting cocky after having a little success in the big leagues. That happens to some guys. They come here, get cocky and then experience difficulty. All of a sudden they're lost. It'll come back to bite you."

True, the Orioles' problems to date have been primarily pitching. The starting rotation has never found consistency because of Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman's season-long problems.

Even with Guzman's complete-game shutout yesterday over the Braves, the duo has won only five of 26 starts while pitching 148 innings, 28.5 percent of the team's total. A run of 13 quality outings for the starters in the previous 22 games suggested improvement but not enough to leave the Orioles with a winning recored when managing 10 or more hits (14-14).

But for a pitcher who ended spring training with a disastrous one-inning appearance in Birmingham, Ala., and lingering questions about weight, Ponson has provided the most positive answers of the season. Considered the fourth starter in April only because of Scott Kamieniecki's strained hamstring, Ponson's development has accelerated so that he is now deemed the de facto No. 2, trailing only Mike Mussina.

Ponson has allowed three or fewer earned runs in 10 of his 12 starts. He has lasted at least seven innings in seven of his last nine starts, his only stumbles coming May 11 in Cleveland and May 31 in Seattle. Both provided lessons.

Against the Indians, Ponson was reminded by Miller and Kison of pitching with purpose off the plate.

So confident in his ability, Ponson refused to pitch carefully to the game's most intimidating lineup and was punished by 0-2 home runs from Richie Sexson and David Justice. Ponson left after 4 2/3 innings, having allowed a season-high eight earned runs on only 75 pitches. Except for a loss of composure during the Memorial Day loss against the Mariners when Miller, Johnson, Kison and first baseman Will Clark alternately addressed him, Ponson has not been stopped.

On June 5, Ponson made his toughest start one day after learning about the death of his grandmother. Rather than leave immediately, he remained to pitch eight solid innings against Philadelphia. "It was tough. My mom had talked to me," Ponson recalled. "It was just something I had to do. The hard part was not taking it out there with me."

An entire clubhouse noticed. Respected for his gift, Ponson has grown into something more.

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