Poised Ponson perseveres

After blowing 3-run lead, O's pitcher steels himself, is rewarded vs. Rays, 4-3

Tough Segui at-bat plates winner

Ponson went to clubhouse `to scream,' then `went back out with clear mind'

April 11, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson slammed his fist onto the mound during the fifth inning yesterday, and when another lead evaporated against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he retreated into the clubhouse and let out a primal scream.

But this was a test, and he knew it. Not just for him, but also for the entire team.

What kind of mettle will the Orioles show this season? What about Ponson? If a single afternoon at Tropicana Field ever begged those questions, this was it.

Ponson found his focus when it mattered most, David Segui drove home the go-ahead run with an eighth-inning single that left his hitting coach marveling, and the Orioles survived some more tense moments from closer Jorge Julio for a 4-3 victory.

With the win, the Orioles avoided a three-game sweep, which would have been tough to live with against the perennially last-place Devil Rays, no matter how much they've improved.

"I'm not going to lie," Ponson said, standing in the winning clubhouse. "I was really [angry] after those two runs scored [in the fifth]. I came in here to shout and scream, and I went back out there with a clear mind."

Ponson's mind was mostly cloudy the other time he pitched this season. Last Friday, he lost his composure in an 8-7 loss to the Boston Red Sox, allowing five runs and five walks in 2 1/3 innings.

Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley made a mound visit, and Ponson wouldn't even look at him. As the juvenile display continued, Ponson abandoned his off-speed pitches and started grooving fastballs for the grateful Boston hitters.

On Wednesday, manager Mike Hargrove summoned Ponson into his office for a meeting. Instead of screaming, Hargrove was calm, and his message was clear: stay focused, even if things start going bad.

"He could have chewed me out, but he didn't," Ponson said. "You could see he was [angry], and I don't blame him."

So there Ponson was in the fifth inning yesterday, trying to protect a 3-1 lead. The Orioles had gone in front an inning earlier on a three-run homer by Jay Gibbons, his second of the year.

Rocco Baldelli made it 3-2 with a run-scoring single that bounced off second baseman Jerry Hairston's glove. Trying to hold the speedy Baldelli on first, Ponson made a pickoff attempt, and his throw bounced past first baseman Jeff Conine, allowing Baldelli to reach third.

That's when Ponson slammed his pitching hand on the mound. Moments later, he bounced a wild pitch past catcher Brook Fordyce, and Baldelli scored standing up with the tying run.

Ponson was furious. It was the fifth lead the Orioles had blown in the series. Then, somehow, he gathered himself and retired eight of his last nine batters. In the sixth inning, with the score still tied 3-3, Ponson struck out the side before departing after a scoreless seventh.

"He stepped back on the mound, composed himself, kept his focus and didn't let it get completely out of hand," Hargrove said. "That's a very good thing to see out of Sidney."

The payoff came with two outs in the eighth, when Segui stepped in against hard-throwing Devil Rays reliever Jesus Colome (1-1) and singled up the middle, scoring pinch runner Jose Morban.

Fordyce started that inning with a bloop single to right field. Morban came in to run, and Hairston bunted him to second. Segui took a big swing early in the count, and then shortened up his swing with two strikes. He fouled off two pitches before tapping the ball back through Colome's feet.

"He dipped into all his professional knowledge of hitting and got the job done," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "If he tries to do any more with that, it's probably an out."

But the suspense didn't end there. Buddy Groom pitched a scoreless eighth for the Orioles, setting the stage for Julio, who had blown his two previous save chances this season, including one here two nights earlier.

This time, Julio stranded the tying run on third base, striking out pinch hitter Javier Valentin to end the game.

Julio became the first Orioles pitcher to record a save in 44 games, dating back to last year. Ponson (1-1) became their first starter to record a victory this season.

"You like to see good work rewarded," Hargrove said. "And we worked for that game today."

Orioles today

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Fenway Park, Boston

Time: 2:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: No TV/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Jason Johnson (0-0, 0.00) vs. Red Sox's Pedro Martinez (0-0, 0.60)

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