Ponson finishes off Mets, 4-1

5th complete game, Belle 2-run HR lift O's

July 21, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

When Sidney Ponson arrived at spring training five months ago, his manager noticed his weight, his sluggish velocity and his inability to get over a blister. With last night's performance against the New York Mets, Ponson provided nothing less than another endorsement for the Orioles' future as he produced a complete-game 4-1 win before an announced crowd of 45,450 at Camden Yards.

Ponson (9-6) had help. Albert Belle blew open a tight game with a two-run home run in the fourth inning, his 20th, and the Orioles got a first-inning run without a hit against Al Leiter (8-7).

But as the 40-53 Orioles shift gears from this season to next, Ponson represents a cornerstone. Last night's was his fifth complete game in his last 12 starts. The 22-year-old has finished each of his last four wins. His complete games not only lead the American League but are more than 11 other teams in the league. Not bad for a kid who pitched 140 innings last season and entered the year with one complete game since 1996.

Ponson struck out three. He has more than six strikeouts in only one start this season, a statistic that causes him no shame.

"People say, `Why don't you have more strikeouts? You're a power pitcher.' I don't care about strikeouts," he said. "I want them to hit the ball. My goal is seven innings every time out. If I can go more, great. I've got plenty of confidence in those guys behind me so it's not important to me to strike out a bunch of people."

"The reason Sidney's got five complete games is because of a speech I made earlier in the year," said manager Ray Miller, pleased with a 4-2 homestand. "If you want me to stay with you get into the ninth with 104, 105 pitches. But 104 and 105 in the fifth inning, when you've got somebody complaining you take them out of the game, that just doesn't work."

Ponson also has immersed himself in a program with conditioning addict Scott Erickson. Others, including Miller, have noticed.

"I was upset that he wasn't in shape in spring training. I got big promises from the people in Aruba that he would be in shape. But he wasn't in the best shape when he came in," said Miller. "I told [pitching coach] Bruce Kison all spring he threw a 98-mph fastball. Bruce asked me all the way into April when he was going to see one."

The Mets lead the major leagues in walks and had frustrated Juan Guzman and Jason Johnson the previous two nights with their patience. Ponson didn't give them the option. He pounded first-pitch strikes and bothered little with trickery, allowing the Mets three walks after Guzman and Johnson issued 10 in 9 2/3 innings.

Having struggled to rally the previous two nights, the Orioles played from ahead this time. Leiter allowed them a 1-0 lead in the first inning without surrendering a hit. The inning included an error by backup shortstop Luis Lopez, which led to an unearned run, Rich Amaral being thrown out at third base on an attempted steal, and manager Ray Miller's second ejection this season for arguing the call with base umpire Rick Reed. Replays showed Amaral's lead hand never pushed past third baseman Robin Ventura; however, Reed's strike zone scored few points with Miller the night before.

With one out, Leiter suffered a lapse of control. He walked Belle, walked Jeff Conine then drilled Will Clark to force home the run.

In the third inning, Rickey Henderson's two-out double was followed by second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo's RBI single. Henderson's run not only forced a 1-1 game, it carried historic implications as it was the 2,062nd run of his career, tying Willie Mays for fifth place all-time.

The Orioles wasted little time retaking control of the game against Leiter, who entered 6-1 with a 2.93 ERA in his previous eight starts. Optioned back to Rochester after the game, Ryan Minor began the rally by looping a single. The fielding problems compounded when Amaral, playing in place of center fielder Brady Anderson, lined a single that Mets right fielder Benny Agbayani botched for an error, putting runners at first and third.

Mike Bordick made the Mets pay for the gift base when he lofted a sacrifice fly, scoring Minor. Amaral stole second base to keep out of a potential double play. The move extended the inning when B. J. Surhoff grounded out.

Greeted roughly by a home crowd for his indifferent performance with runners in scoring position, Belle changed the game with his 20th home run into the left-center field seats. The blast left Belle with at least 20 home runs the past nine seasons and 10 homers in his last 30 games.

The Orioles hope Belle continues to rehabilitate his season as well as his allure to contenders. Industry and club sources confirmed yesterday that Belle has rescinded the no-trade clause in his five-year, $65 million contract and that at least two teams have expressed some interest in acquiring him.

Unlike Belle, Ponson is an "untouchable." He again showed why as he steamrolled the major leagues' best team since June 6 (27-13).

"He's much better at avoiding big innings than he was earlier in the year," said catcher Charles Johnson. "He's a lot more level-headed out there. If something happens, he moves on."

Last night also represented Ponson's eighth quality start in his last nine appearances, an unprecedented run by an Orioles starter this season. Ponson has failed to pitch at least seven innings only once in that span.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Fenway Park

Time: 7: 05

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (12-4, 3.57) vs. Red Sox's Bret Saberhagen (6-3, 2.81)

In league of own

Orioles starter Sidney Ponson could be excused if he asked for a trade to the National League. In interleague play this season, he's 3-0 with a 2.06 ERA and three complete games.

D Opp. IP H ER Res

6/5 Phl. 8 5 3 ND*

6/11 Atl. 9 5 2 W 6-2

7/15 Mon. 9 11 2 W 8-2

7/20 NYM 9 6 1 W 4-1

* blown save

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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