A lack of run support hurt Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson during the second half of last season, when quality starts repeatedly went unrewarded. One appearance into a new year, his demands have been lowered. He'll gladly settle for a few hits.
Even one would be progress.
Ponson had the misfortune of stepping on the mound the same night as Boston's Hideo Nomo, who tossed his second career no-hitter in Wednesday's 3-0 victory over the Orioles. If timing is everything, Ponson's couldn't have been worse.
He threw well enough to win, just as he did so many times over his last 14 appearances of 2000, when the Orioles averaged 2.57 runs and Ponson went 4-9. Brian Daubach homered with one on in the third inning, the only runs off Ponson until the Red Sox's first baseman took him deep again leading off the eighth.
Two earned runs and four hits in 7 1/3 innings. Ten strikeouts and only one walk. Few mistakes among his 103 pitches. And one unavoidable loss, with Nomo demanding that Ponson be perfect or suffer the consequences.
"Oh definitely, but you have to tip your hat to Nomo," Ponson said. "Who expected him to come out and do that? It happens once in a blue moon."
Or at least once during a Ponson start, the earliest no-hitter by date in baseball history. Maybe it was a full moon.
"Daubach hit a good changeup out," Ponson said. "That's the only thing they needed. That was the game. I'm pretty happy with the way I threw, but we lost. We'll see what happens in Boston."
That would be tonight, when Ponson is given another chance against the Red Sox. Maybe the results will improve. His timing sure hasn't, not with Nomo again opposing him.
"That's the nature of this game," Ponson said. "You never know what's going to happen. It's over with and I just have to look forward to my next start."
His first one didn't come on Opening Day, as he once had hoped. Ponson planned on flying in his mother from Aruba if given the assignment, but it went to Pat Hentgen, who signed as a free agent in December after going 15-12 for the St. Louis Cardinals. Hentgen responded by allowing one run in 8 2/3 innings, but he didn't get the decision in a 2-1 victory that wasn't secured until the 11th.
"I knew as soon as we signed Hentgen that he was pretty much going to be the Opening Day starter," said Ponson, again treating his fate with a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. "What he's done in his career, you have to give him respect. As long as he's been in the league, winning a Cy Young, you have to give it to him."
The Orioles have given Ponson a different responsibility. Beginning his fourth major-league season, he's become the No. 2 starter on a staff that lost ace Mike Mussina to free agency and Scott Erickson to an elbow injury. Ponson, 24, moved up to that slot last year because of Erickson's health issues - he underwent ligament-transplant surgery in August and could miss most of the season - but it's the first time he's been projected there so early.
If there's more pressure on Ponson, a greater urgency to tap deeper into his vast potential, he hasn't noticed it. Or perhaps what he sees doesn't intimidate him.
"No. 1, 2, 3, whatever. It doesn't matter," he said. "When you have the ball, you have to do your job. That's how I approach the game. The day I pitch, I have to go out there and get outs."
"I think Sidney's highly motivated to win," said his agent, Barry Praver, who negotiated the $2.1 million, one-year contract that Ponson signed in February to avoid an arbitration hearing. "He's a fierce competitor, a warrior if you will. And I think his intensity on the mound will be the same every game, regardless of the circumstances."
Talk of Ponson taking the next step in his career - one that would produce many more victories than the nine he manufactured last season - has become commonplace at Camden Yards, like expensive crab cakes and front office bashing. Despite his assortment of plus-pitches, Ponson hasn't finished with a record above .500 since going 7-6 at Single-A Frederick in 1996. He has 12 complete games over the past two seasons, but also has allowed 65 home runs.
"When somebody asks the question, `Is this a big year or an important year for Sidney?' well, every year is an important year for Sidney, just like every other ballplayer," Praver said. "It's something they gear up for over the winter. This is what they do every day for a living."
But they don't all carry the same expectations. They don't all excite and disappoint an organization with the same maddening regularity.
"Whatever people think, I don't dwell on it," Ponson said. "I'm just going to go out there and let my pitching do the talking. That's the way I look at it."
Ponson's fourth season has brought a fourth pitching coach, Mark Wiley, who used January's FanFest as an opportunity to get better acquainted with the Aruban right-hander. Wiley learned a lot more about him in spring training, when he determined that Ponson had the stuff to win 20 games.