Ponson dubs O's winners vs. Rays

Soon to be knighted, Aruban pitcher delivers 4th straight solid start, 7-4

April 28, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Stepping onto the field yesterday, the Orioles were focused on winning the last game of their series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and avoiding an embarrassing sweep. They had at least nine innings to play before getting on a charter for the next destination on their road trip. It seemed like business as usual.

But many of them had no idea they were in the presence of royalty.

Sidney Ponson didn't take the same flight as the other Orioles. He left last night for his native Aruba, where he'll be knighted tomorrow by the queen of the Netherlands. Aruba is a dependency of the Netherlands.

He may never win 20 games or a Cy Young Award, but let's see Roger Clemens do that.

With Ponson on the mound, the Orioles were kings for a day. Choosing to protect a big early lead rather than exposing it to another comeback, they defeated the Devil Rays, 7-4, at Tropicana Field and headed to Detroit a .500 team still entrenched in third place.

The last two hitters in the lineup, shortstop Deivi Cruz and catcher Geronimo Gil, each knocked in two runs against bewildered Devil Rays starter Joe Kennedy, whose control was so poor that one of his pitches sailed between Tony Batista's legs. Nobody will ever fault Batista again for his open stance.

The Orioles sent nine batters to the plate in the third inning while building a 6-0 lead. They had been ahead 4-0, 5-0 and 6-0 after the second inning in three games played here this season, each time being handed a loss.

No wonder manager Mike Hargrove never felt relaxed until closer Jorge Julio, brought into a non-save situation in the ninth with the Orioles leading 7-3, recorded the last out.

"You get hit with a sledgehammer hard enough," Hargrove said, "you start looking for the sledgehammer."

Hopefully, that won't be part of tomorrow's ceremony. Ponson and former Orioles teammates Calvin Maduro and Eugene Kingsale - three of four Aruban players to reach the majors - will meet Queen Beatrix and receive the Ridder Van Oranje award in the capital city of Oranjestad.

Kingsale, who bats leadoff for the Tigers, received permission to miss the opening game of the series against the Orioles at Comerica Park.

"They just sent me a letter saying I've got to be there," Ponson (2-2) said after allowing three runs in 6 2/3 innings. "I am looking forward to it. It's the highest thing you can get from the queen."

Ponson retired the first eight batters, striking out five of them, and got within an out of going seven full innings for the fourth consecutive start. He was hitting his spots with all his pitches and threw the breaking ball for strikes when behind in the count.

Often a victim of low run support, Ponson was taken good care of yesterday.

"It was nice to go out and score some runs for Sidney the way he pitched and held the Devil Rays in check," Hargrove said.

This was the latest quality start for Ponson, who has surrendered 11 earned runs and three walks in his past 27 2/3 innings covering four appearances. The low point came early this season, when the Boston Red Sox scored five runs off him in 2 1/3 innings on April 4. He became so frustrated that it affected his pitch selection and his demeanor during a mound visit.

It seems so long ago now that his ERA is below 5.00 and his emotions are under control.

"I think you see Sidney really staying together mentally, keeping his focus and not letting a close call that goes against him or a ball that's not caught take him out of his zone," Hargrove said.

Never shy about teasing his teammates or anyone near his locker, Ponson was a willing recipient yesterday of some well-delivered verbal jabs.

He didn't broadcast the news of his pending knighthood, so word was slow to spread through the clubhouse.

"Does anyone know if this is true?" asked David Segui.

One player wondered aloud whether Ponson would be running for mayor or if the title even existed. Another inquired whether his name was drawn from a hat.

"I guess not many people have accomplished much there," said another player, waiting until Ponson was within earshot.

When asked by a reporter whether he should be addressed as royalty, Ponson grinned and said, "I'm going to be yelling at you guys the same way." He declined all offers to have the event covered by the media, sensing that the only motive was a free trip to Aruba.

"It's an honor. Not everybody can get that," he said. "On Wednesday, ask me how it went. Right now, I have no clue."

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