Ponson concerns rise in Sox split

Rocked pitcher to get MRI after 11-7 loss

O's win nightcap, 9-4

July 21, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Every fifth day the Orioles pull out their unpolished diamond and ponder its worth. Some days it makes them smile. Other days it makes them cry.

Yesterday afternoon's opener of a day-night doubleheader was a handkerchief-holder as the Orioles watched starting pitcher Sidney Ponson's brilliance again become clouded by halting development, his obvious frustration and ultimately an injury of uncertain severity.

The Orioles gained a aplit of the day-night doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox by rallying for a 9-4 win after losing 11-7 behind Ponson in the opener. But due to growing concern surrounding Ponson's effectiveness and health, the split could hardly be considered even.

Ponson will undergo a magnetic resonance imaging today after leaving yesterday's first game with acute neck stiffness. The condition began during the Red Sox's three-run fourth inning and worsened during a three-run fifth. Manager Mike Hargrove described the exam as precautionary.

In the second game, second baseman Mark Lewis' bases-loaded double capped a four-run third inning that turned a 3-2 deficit into a 6-3 lead that starter Scott Erickson (5-7) and three relievers would make stand. Erickson lasted 5 1/3 innings on 95 pitches, most of them balls, while allowing six walks and four earned runs. Those teams still scouting him as a trade possibility continue to wait for late movement to return to his pitches.

Will Clark's second home run and fifth RBI of the doubleheader and Mike Bordick's 16th homer helped the Orioles win for the first time in six home games against the Red Sox.

Ponson, still 23 and still in possession of a 97-mph fastball, again revealed a tendency to fumble early leads and generous run support as the Red Sox administered a 17-hit beating before a decidedly pro-Boston crowd at Camden Yards.

Repeatedly this season Hargrove, first-year pitching coach Sammy Ellis and various front office executives have lavished praise on Ponson for better anger management, more proficiency at blowing hitters away with high fastballs and supposedly greater maturity. But after yesterday's opener, Hargrove stepped gingerly around Ponson's performance while Ellis abstained from specifics.

"There are a number of positives with Sidney," reminded Hargrove, who cited the absent off-speed assortment as yesterday's most notable negative. "The No. 1 being - except for one time - keeping his composure on the mound. You see a guy that has Sidney's ability and talent ... it's developing his ability to maintain focus that's all-important. He has made huge strides in that direction."

Hargrove visited Ponson on the mound in the fifth inning. When he asked Ponson how his neck felt, Ponson replied, '`It's killing me."

Ponson insisted he could get the inning's final out against catcher Jason Varitek and Hargrove went along. Varitek then countered by ripping a home run to make it an 8-4 game.

Ponson allowed his performance to speak for him for a second straight start. Rather than address it, Ponson sat quietly at his locker with his head bowed.

For the 11th time this season, the Orioles scored at least seven runs in a Ponson start. And for the seventh time in those starts, Ponson received no decision or worse. The Orioles have averaged 6.4 runs in Ponson's 20 starts yet are only 9-11 behind him.

Ponson (5-6) remains irritated by reports of his unauthorized road trip with two teammates to a July 4 Metallica concert at PSINet Stadium. Ponson returned to New York barely 24 hours before a ruinous six-run, 1 1/3 -inning start in which he helped drop a 7-0 lead to the Yankees. Though disciplined for it, Ponson has since told club officials he felt the incident was unfairly inflated.

Inflation isn't limited to media reports. Yesterday's middle-inning collapse hiked his post-Metallica ERA to 10.68 in three starts.

Ponson's 5.46 ERA is higher than either his rookie 1998 season (5.27) or last season (4.71). Yesterday he tied a career-high with nine strikeouts while surrendering 11 hits and eight earned runs, a combination explained by a lively fastball but poor location on his off-speed pitches.

"He had a good fastball but he had a tough time with his changeup," said catcher Greg Myers.

Once a clubhouse bright light, Ponson now prefers to sulk. A Sports Illustrated caricature inspired by the Metallica trip enraged him. Considered untouchable last winter, club officials no longer use the term and a future move to a closer has been discussed.

Hargrove obliquely criticized Ponson's defensive support, but the same defense has sabotaged numerous games up and down the rotation all season.

Ponson reacted with disgust in the fourth inning when right fielder Albert Belle played Varitek's opposite-field fly ball off the scoreboard. But rather than clank off the board, the ball hit on the top of the signage below the scoreboard. What would have been a scoreless inning's final out extended what became a three-run rally.

Shortstop Nomar Garciaparra temporarily bumped his average to .403 with a 3-for-5 first game that needed only a home run for the cycle. At least one of his hits was helped by a defensive lapse.

With the Red Sox leading, 5-4, Garciaparra ripped Ponson's first pitch of the fifth inning to the center-field wall. Brady Anderson retreated but couldn't make the catch on what was scored a triple.

Troy O'Leary immediately added to his 4-for-4 game with an RBI single.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site: SkyDome, Toronto

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Pat Rapp (5-6, 5.68) vs. Blue Jays' Roy Halladay (4-5, 10.90)

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