Ponson springs more questions

Shaky six innings leave mixed signals

March 27, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. -- Sidney Ponson became the first Orioles pitcher to go six innings yesterday. He had to navigate some choppy waters to get there.

At times, the waves were over his head.

Looking to balance an uneven spring, Ponson raised more questions about his readiness for an April 5 start at Camden Yards after giving up six runs and 11 hits. He walked one and didn't allow a homer, the only positive developments in an 8-4 loss to the Montreal Expos. He also didn't record a strikeout.

Only the third inning passed without at least one runner reaching base. He allowed consecutive two-out doubles to Rondell White and Vladimir Guerrero in the first to fall behind 1-0, then shut out the Expos over the next three innings despite allowing two singles in the second and a two-out infield hit in the fourth.

Montreal jumped him for two runs in the fifth and three more in the sixth to complete his line and extend his slump. Ponson has given up 18 earned runs (22 total) and 36 hits in 23 innings, walking nine and striking out 15. Opponents are batting .353 against him.

He's supposed to replace Scott Erickson as the No. 2 starter in April. With only Friday's start in Atlanta remaining before the club heads to Baltimore, he's supposed to be instilling more confidence.

At least Ponson hasn't lost his.

"I thought I was throwing the ball good. A couple hits here and there," he said.

"Six runs on the board are a lot of runs. I'm not happy about that, but I thought I threw the ball pretty good. I was down in the zone."

Around this time last year, Ponson was down about a lot of things. Most disturbing, he didn't feel ready for the season to commence. He needed more innings, but wouldn't find them until returning north, where the margin for error grew much slimmer.

Ponson said he's more prepared for this season despite statistics that scream to the contrary.

"I have my stuff," he said. "I just have to get it together, make better pitches."

He'll get one more chance before touching down in Baltimore, when the Orioles travel to Atlanta on Friday. By going seven innings there, Ponson will push his spring total to the desired 30.

"I've gone through my dead arm period already. Hopefully, I just stay healthy through the season," he said.

Until Erickson returns, there isn't anyone in position to jump ahead of Ponson in the rotation. Jason Johnson, projected as the third starter, takes a 6.50 ERA to Fort Myers today. Pat Rapp, Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes are jockeying for the last two spots.

Manager Mike Hargrove, while insisting he wasn't trying to put a "best face" on Ponson's outing yesterday, saw some encouraging signs from the Aruban right-hander that allowed him to look beyond the inflated ERA and horde of base runners this spring.

"Given the fact he went six innings today and his velocity was good the whole time, he threw some good curveballs, I'm not particularly upset with the numbers," he said.

"I talked to [catcher] Willie Morales, and he said Sidney was cutting everything. His fastball was cutting back to the middle of the plate, and his changeup was doing the same thing, so he obviously was getting around the ball. But there were times he threw good fastballs, and I liked the fact he wasn't afraid to pitch in."

Most bothersome to Hargrove has been Ponson's tendency to give up two-out hits that lead to runs. It happened twice yesterday, when Guerrero doubled in the first inning and Orlando Cabrera stroked a single in the sixth.

"To me, that's just a little bit of a lack of concentration, which is really easily corrected," Hargrove said.

"Sidney's not a guy who goes halfway on anything. I don't know if Sidney even realizes he's doing it, and it may be that he's not, but he's done it more than once this spring. It's just something I'll bring to his attention.

"I'm not concerned about it, but it bothers me. It's something you don't want to continue."

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