Ponson in there pitching for a better deal from O's

2 sides may be headed for arbitration Feb. 14


January 27, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

If the Orioles and pitcher Sidney Ponson can't reach agreement on a contract for 2001, the two sides will meet in Phoenix for an arbitration hearing on Feb. 14. They won't exchange heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, just more figures. Either way, Ponson will receive a sweet deal.

His agent, Barry Praver, is seeking $2.65 million, a significant raise over the $400,000 the right-hander earned last season. The Orioles have countered with an offer of $1.9 million.

"I don't even want to get involved with that," Ponson said. "You've got an agent, and it's his job to do it. He calls me once in a while to let me know where things stand. We'll wait and see what happens. It's never good for either side to go to arbitration, but if you have to go, you go."

Jose Mercedes, the other Oriole to file, is seeking $3.8 million after leading the club with 14 victories. The Orioles are offering $2.75 million. His hearing is scheduled for Feb. 19, also in Phoenix. Because of the large gap separating the two sides, it's more likely this issue won't be resolved early.

Ponson, 24, would rather focus on his final month of pitching. Maybe the overall record doesn't show it, but he found a momentum that he wants to ride as far as it will take him.

Four losses in his last six decisions left Ponson at 9-13, three fewer victories than in the previous season. But the Orioles averaged only 2.78 runs for him after the All-Star break, and scored 10 in his six September appearances, when he posted a 3.21 ERA.

Manager Mike Hargrove has noted the progress made by Ponson from start to finish, how he seemed to have a better grasp of the art of pitching, the importance of changing speeds and getting ahead in the count. Ponson also began using a splitter, which he'll break out again in spring training.

With his velocity, Ponson can punch holes through a wall with his fastball. It took until later in the season to understand the wisdom of not always aiming at the same brick.

"I think I made big strides in the last month, throwing hard when I needed instead of throwing hard all the time," he said. "I learned that location is much better than hard and right down the middle. They'll catch up to you no matter how hard you throw.

"It's been a four- or five-month layoff and you don't know how you're going to react when you face hitters again, but I'm happy with the way I'm throwing in the bullpen. I'm not trying to throw the ball 100 miles an hour. That's helping me a lot, to learn how to pitch."

Hargrove said the "eye-opener" came Sept. 6 in Minnesota, when Ponson struck out 11 over 7 2/3 innings in a 4-1 loss. He walked only one and used the split-finger more regularly after confining it mostly to the bullpen.

"It gives him another very good pitch," Hargrove said. "I don't know if it's ready for him to use full time, but it looked like a very serviceable pitch and one that if he kept working on it, could be a big boost for him and another weapon."

Hargrove said that coupled with Ponson's talent, his beginning to grasp how to pitch and change speeds is a welcome part of the developmental process.

"Now, whether it continues remains to be seen, but I saw it and it was very encouraging," Hargrove said.

Ponson, who has completed his third year in the majors, was signed into the Orioles' organization as a non-drafted free agent in 1993. He was called up unexpectedly on April 17, 1998, when former Orioles ace Mike Mussina went on the disabled list. That season Ponson went 8-9, improving to 12-12 in 1999.

Last season, his six complete games tied Mussina for third in the American League and matched his total of the previous year. He also tossed his first career shutout, a four-hit gem in Minnesota on April 16 and set a career high with 222 innings. His ERA rose modestly, from 4.71 to 4.82, in 32 starts - the same amount as last season. His strikeouts increased from 112 to 152.

Six times, he left a game with the lead and didn't get the decision when the bullpen failed to hold it, but sympathy is slow to arrive at Ponson's doorstep. Most fans remember the one sizable lead in New York on July 6 that escaped him because he couldn't get through the second inning. And the larger controversy that followed when it was revealed he had attended a heavy-metal concert in Baltimore two days earlier, leaving the club without permission.

His ears still are ringing, and not because he sat too close to the speakers. The first question directed at Ponson during FanFest earlier this month involved his overnight trip. It's no secret that he embraces the night life in Baltimore, and his after-hours relaxation brings more curiosity, and occasional concerns, than his results on the mound. He'd prefer the focus stay between the white lines, but he also knows that's not possible when he steps out of bounds.

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