O's pitchers change up routine

Johnson adds forkball

Ponson drops splitter

March 05, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. -- Jason Johnson plans on using a pitch this season that he only toyed with in 2001. Sidney Ponson is ridding himself of one pitch and changing the way he throws another.

Spring training traditionally is a time for experimentation, and two Orioles were living proof yesterday.

Starting the earlier B game, Johnson tossed three scoreless innings against the St. Louis Cardinals before doing some running in the outfield and heading to the clubhouse. Ponson also went three innings later in the day, giving up his first four Grapefruit League runs in a 13-4 loss.

For Johnson, the outing meant refining a forkball he began using in the second half of last season, with pitching coach Mark Wiley making the suggestion. For Ponson, it meant going back to the changeup he last used in 1997, and again avoiding the split-fingered fastball that puts additional strain on his elbow.

Johnson didn't have much time to warm up, with the team bus pulling into Roger Dean Stadium about 9:35 for a 10 a.m. game. He quickly got dressed and bolted for the field, where he shut out the Cardinals on three hits with three strikeouts.

Toss in the relatively short amount of rest -- Johnson went two innings Thursday night -- and he had every reason to be satisfied with the results.

"I felt solid. The fastball was there. The changeup was great. It felt unbelievable in my hand. And I threw some good sliders," he said. "All in all, everything was exactly where I wanted it to be."

Johnson mixed in the forkball in favorable counts, hoping to use it as his strikeout pitch.

"I'm going to try to throw it a little bit more, but I don't want to wear it out. Then the hitters start thinking, `Here comes the forkball.' I want an element of surprise there," he said.

"Right now, it's a little bit rusty, but I love throwing it. And it doesn't hurt my arm at all, knock on wood. It's just one more pitch I have to work with."

Johnson said he isn't sure how Wiley came up with the idea. "I was just throwing on the side one day and he said, `You might want to try it.' I don't know if it's big hands or what, but after I held it with my fingers split, it felt great," he said.

Said Wiley: "I think his delivery and arm action are conducive to learning it. We didn't want to break it out too much last year. We just wanted to keep improving on it to where it becomes a more useful pitch. It gives him a different look and another pitch to strike out people with."

Johnson copied the grips used by relievers Willis Roberts and Mike Trombley, who offered their assistance.

"I took it out in the bullpen and threw it there until it felt good enough to throw in a game," he said.

For now Ponson has abandoned his splitter, which may resurface later in the spring, and circle changeup. He's gone back to a more conventional changeup, which he stopped throwing after an elbow injury ruined his 1997 season at Double-A Bowie. This pitch is about 10 mph slower than his fastball.

"It's a feel pitch," said Ponson, who was shut down after Aug. 28 last season because of a sore elbow. "When I play catch, I throw it a couple times, and when I shag in the outfield, I throw it back a couple times."

Wiley is stressing that Ponson stay in a good arm slot and not change angles, a problem Johnson doesn't have with a delivery that comes more over the top. Wiley also left open the possibility that Ponson will begin using the splitter again, though he added: "Sidney doesn't need four or five pitches. He has the kind of stuff that he doesn't need that."

He needed a few breaks in the second inning, but they didn't come.

The first two St. Louis batters reached against Ponson in the first inning without scoring, but the Cardinals opened the second with a walk, a two-run homer by Edgar Renteria and singles by Mike Matheny, Miguel Cairo and pitcher Bud Smith. Two more runs scored on grounders by Kerry Robinson and Placido Polanco, as the Cardinals sent eight batters to the plate.

"I fell behind the first four batters," he said. "You'll get hit when you do that."

Ponson ran the count full to Renteria before allowing the homer, which cleared the fence in center field.

"It was up and in," Ponson said, locating the problem better than the ball.

"But it's spring training."

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