NEW YORK - Sidney Ponson has made 14 starts against the New York Yankees since he last beat them as a rookie in 1998, and tonight he'll get another chance against his boyhood hero, Roger Clemens.
Ordinarily, this would be a big start for Ponson. Since it comes less than a week after the Orioles disappointed him with their first long-term contract offer, it will be magnified even more.
Still, Ponson downplayed the significance yesterday.
"I'm doing my thing," he said. "I'm just trying to help these guys win ballgames. If I do win [today], good, and if I lose, I'll keep working hard for my next start against Minnesota."
Ponson has had some tough luck against the Yankees since he beat them twice during his rookie season. Last year, he faced them six times and went 0-3, despite turning in four quality starts.
In four career starts against Clemens, Ponson is 0-1 with a 4.30 ERA.
Clemens is 2-0 with a 2.20 ERA in those games.
By using Ponson as their No. 4 starter coming out of spring training and their No. 3 starter after the All-Star break, the Orioles have shielded him from facing other teams' top pitchers most of the season. Ponson has responded extremely well, but the stakes get a little higher tonight.
"I don't look at this as a test for Sidney at all, other than the test being to try and beat the Yankees," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "It's not a measuring stick or a milestone or any of those things. It's just a game that's going to played on July 24. We've got Sidney pitching, and we feel good when Sidney pitches for us."
Orioles officials are sounding more and more resigned to letting next Thursday's non-waiver trade deadline pass without a significant deal, but several of their players should clear waivers next month, allowing them to maneuver up to the season's final trade deadline, Aug. 31.
So far, teams haven't been willing to part with the prospects the Orioles want. The Orioles don't need to dump salary, so they would rather stand pat than give away their players for marginal talent that won't help them in the future.
"We're not going to do something just to do something," Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said.
The Chicago Cubs, for example, had interest in Orioles third baseman Tony Batista until Tuesday, when they traded two minor leaguers for Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez and center fielder Kenny Lofton. But the Orioles identified the players they wanted, and the Cubs went in a different direction.
Ponson probably won't clear waivers. Contending teams are likely to put in claims to block each other from getting him in a trade. But teams will be more reluctant to block the likes of Batista, Jeff Conine and Buddy Groom because they don't want to get stuck with the money they have remaining on their contracts.
For now, the Orioles say they are committed to signing Ponson, but they haven't received a counterproposal from his agent since Saturday, when they offered him a three-year, $15 million deal with incentives and an option for 2007.
Even for Ponson, teams haven't been willing to part with their top prospects (Atlanta with catcher Johnny Estrada, for example), so the Orioles would rather keep negotiating with Ponson into the winter and take the draft picks if they lose him through free agency.
Ponson will likely qualify as a Type A, the top rung of free agents, so if he signs with another team, the Orioles could get that team's first-round pick and a compensatory pick between the first and second rounds of next year's amateur draft.
The St. Louis Cardinals were looking for pitching even before they learned Matt Morris is expected to miss three to six weeks with a fractured right index finger. Cardinals senior vice president Bob Gebhard was at Yankee Stadium last night, undoubtedly taking a look at Orioles pitcher Rick Helling.
St. Louis has varying levels of interest in Ponson, Helling, Jason Johnson and Pat Hentgen, who went 15-12 for the Cardinals in 2000.
Minor league update
When the Orioles demoted catcher Geronimo Gil to Triple-A Ottawa on Sunday, he took the news hard. But two days later, he had the game-winning hit in a 5-4 victory over Durham, a single that scored Larry Bigbie.
Meanwhile, the Orioles' two most recent first-round draft picks both had a big night for short-season Single-A Aberdeen on Tuesday. Adam Loewen allowed just one run and struck out six in four innings, and Nick Markakis went 3-for-3 in an 8-7 loss to New Jersey.
Around the horn
Melvin Mora returned to the starting lineup last night. He had been out since Anaheim's John Lackey hit him with a fastball on the left side of the face Sunday. When Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki went 0-for-6 Tuesday night, Mora moved back into the American League batting lead with a .343 average. But Mora was 0-for-4 last night and is now batting .338. ... The Houston Astros are another team looking for starting pitching, and they had a scout at last night's game, as well. Because of Houston's cost constraints, Helling or Hentgen could be targets as solid innings eaters.