SAN FRANCISCO - Sidney Ponson waited a long time for his first taste of postseason competition.
It didn't taste very good.
Ponson pitched well for four innings yesterday, but his postseason debut came unraveled just as the San Francisco Giants appeared to be taking control of their National League Division Series against the wild-card Florida Marlins.
The Marlins came back from a three-run deficit to score three times off Ponson in the fifth inning and went on to score a 9-5 victory at Pacific Bell Park to even the best-of-five opening round at a game apiece.
It wasn't exactly Game 6 of last year's World Series, when the Giants blew a five-run lead in the potential title clincher, but that fifth inning might be remembered as the turning point in a series that was tilting heavily toward a San Francisco victory until Ponson gave up four ground ball hits to allow the Marlins back into the game.
"It's not like I got hit hard," he said. "I made good pitches. I'm not making any excuses, but I threw some good pitches and everything I threw in that fifth inning found a hole. I'm disappointed ... but I'm not disappointed in the way I threw."
Instead of heading back to Florida down two games, the Marlins perked up and pounded the Giants' bullpen in the late innings to salvage the split of the first two games and wrest away home-field advantage.
Giants left-hander Kirk Rueter will face Marlins lefty Mark Redman in Game 3 at Pro Player Stadium tomorrow in a game that may set Giants manager Felipe Alou up for a serious second-guess.
Alou had hinted before Game 1 that he would pitch Rueter yesterday if Game 1 starter Jason Schmidt pitched into the late innings, but switched gears and announced Ponson after Schmidt delivered a complete-game performance.
The original rationale was sound. Rueter was far more effective at home this season (6-2, 4.08 ERA) than he was on the road (4-3, 5.10), but he is a six-inning pitcher who generally needs more bullpen help than Ponson. Alou withheld the decision on Game 2 to make sure the bullpen was fresh, then decided at the last minute to start Ponson anyway.
So the Giants ended up needing four innings from the bullpen and now must send Rueter to the mound in Florida with the weight of the club's playoff hopes resting firmly on his left shoulder.
Ponson, who was acquired from the Orioles in July just for occasions like this, defended his performance, but he clearly was frustrated after missing an opportunity to make good in his first playoff appearance.
"I gave back three runs and got everybody's morale down," he said. "The guys gave me four runs and I didn't make good use of them. They gave me a lead and I made it a tie game and it went downhill from there."
He was a little shaky at the start. He allowed singles to the first two batters he faced in the first inning and complicated the situation with a wild pitch before Derrek Lee drove home the first run of the game with a ground out to shortstop.
The Giants quickly answered with a run on a Barry Bonds double in the bottom of the first and Ponson rebounded from the two game-opening singles to retire 13 of the next 14 batters.
"I was a little too excited and I tried to throw the ball too hard at the start," he said. "I gave up two hits and threw a ball in the dirt. The ground ball that scored the first run would have been a double play if I hadn't allowed the two runners to move up."
Marlins manager Jack McKeon remains beguiled by Bonds. He allowed starter Brad Penny to pitch to him in the first inning and Bonds laced the ball down the right-field line. Penny pitched around him in the fourth and Edgardo Alfonzo hit a long two-run double off the right center-field fence.
"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," he said for the second day in a row.
Look for that to become his mantra.
The Marlins buried all their problems under a pile of 14 hits, including four from leadoff hitter Juan Pierre and two from former Oriole Jeff Conine.