Ponson to get ball in Orioles opener

Righty gets early word from Mazzilli, will be asked `to carry the load'

Spring Training

February 23, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Last month, Sidney Ponson got the big contract. Yesterday, he got the big assignment, as Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli named him the club's projected Opening Night starter.

The Orioles will open their season April 4 against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, and Ponson will likely find himself pitching opposite three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez.

Mazzilli informed Ponson of the decision Saturday, before the pitchers and catchers took the field for their first workout, and the manager went public with the news yesterday.

"He called me in, and I thought I did something wrong," said Ponson, who signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract last month. "He goes, `I'm going to let the media know that you're going to be the Opening Day starter.' It's not 100 percent. Anything can happen, but he wanted to tell me."

The move was not a surprise, considering that the right-hander is the only proven commodity returning to the Orioles' rotation this spring.

But the timing was interesting. By making the move early in camp, Mazzilli was clearly sending a message to Ponson that this team expects more of him now.

"Sometimes you need someone who's going to carry the load and be the guy, regardless of if it's second base, outfield or catcher," Mazzilli said. "Someone who takes that and runs with it, puts [the team] on their shoulders."

Ponson, 27, has never pitched a season opener. He entered last season as the team's No. 4 starter, as the club tried to give him easier pitching matchups through the early part of the season to bolster his confidence and increase his trade value.

He was 14-6 with a 3.77 ERA on July 31, when the Orioles traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Kurt Ainsworth, Damian Moss and Ryan Hannaman.

In San Francisco, Ponson went 3-6 with a 3.71 ERA. He started Game 2 of the National League Division Series and surrendered a three-run lead in an eventual 9-5 loss to the Florida Marlins.

Ponson returned to the Orioles as a free agent, and he heads a starting rotation that will likely include some combination of Ainsworth, Rodrigo Lopez, Eric DuBose, Matt Riley and Omar Daal.

"It is an honor to be the Opening Day starter," Ponson said as he sat icing his elbow yesterday. "I think everybody in this [clubhouse] would want to be an Opening Day starter. Right now, it's the second day of spring training, and I'm just trying to get ready. It doesn't matter how hard you work in the offseason, as soon as you start doing those drills, you get aches and pains everywhere."

Ponson weighed in at 264 pounds Saturday, raising a few eyebrows around camp. A year ago, he weighed 249 pounds at the start of spring, but his exit weight with the Giants was 264.

The Orioles don't seem overly concerned. As one club official put it yesterday, Ponson, 6 feet 1, has never been svelte.

He was the first player in camp more than a week ago and is already well ahead of schedule in his throwing program.

With a new manager coming in, Ponson might have wondered where he stood, but Mazzilli removed that uncertainty immediately.

Still, it's not as if Ponson was feeling like the teacher's pet yesterday.

"I still have to go get [Mazzilli] coffee," he said. "He said the first one to make an error [in the fielding drills] has to make him coffee, and I made the first error. That makes it fun. Right now, I have to go ask him how many sugars he wants.

"It's his coffee. If he wants 10 things of sugar, I'll give him 10 things of sugar."

NOTES: Jerry Hairston and Brian Roberts, who will be fighting for the starting second base job again this spring, were early arrivals in camp yesterday. Mazzilli said there is room on the team for both players. He has met with each of them individually. "I said to them, `Don't worry about a thing,'" Mazzilli said. "`Just go out and play. Just go out and do what you do best. And let me worry about it.'" ... Right fielder Jay Gibbons and designated hitter Jack Cust were also in uniform yesterday. The official reporting day is tomorrow and the first full-squad workout is Wednesday.

Key Orioles dates

Tomorrow: Position players report to spring camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Wednesday: First full-squad workout

March 4: Exhibition opener, vs. Marlins in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

April 3: Exhibition finale, vs. Reds in Chattanooga, Tenn.

April 4: Opening Day, vs. Red Sox at Camden Yards, 8:05 p.m.

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