Ainsworth has focus and future with O's

`Deceptive' newcomer leaves hitters smarting

February 29, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Kurt Ainsworth and Sidney Ponson have lockers that sit side by side in the Orioles' clubhouse this spring, giving the team its own version of a reality TV show.

What happens when two pitchers with completely different personalities get traded for each other one summer and are then asked to unite on the same starting staff the following spring? They could call it The Orioles' Odd Couple.

Yesterday morning, for example, the Orioles invited a nutritionist into their clubhouse to give players tips about improving their diets, and Ponson was having a hard time containing himself.

"Eat a cookie, and it makes your [rear end] fat," Ponson said, moments before the meeting started. "No kidding."

After a few more minutes of enjoying his bad-as-he-wants-to-be self, Ponson pointed to Ainsworth and said, "Now, we're going to try to corrupt this guy."

Ainsworth, 25, glanced over and smiled, with his close-cropped hair framing a look on his boyish face that seemed to say, "No chance."

That's one of the things the Orioles love about him. Ainsworth is still the unproven commodity they got when they traded Ponson to the San Francisco Giants last July, but they have good reason to believe he'll blossom into one of their top pitchers this season.

Ainsworth isn't going to get sidetracked by Ponson, or anyone else.

This is a guy who wore khakis and a blue shirt to school every day at Catholic High in Baton Rouge, La. This is a guy who went to LSU on an academic scholarship and blossomed into one of the best college pitchers in the country -- after undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery.

"What a kid," said Skip Bertman, who coached Ainsworth at LSU before becoming that school's athletic director. "He was a straight-A student, but a nice kid. I've known his family for a long time, and his parents are wonderful. He's extraordinarily bright, but he doesn't flaunt it. He's got a great sense of humor."

Ainsworth was a skinny kid who walked onto LSU's baseball team a season after it won the 1996 NCAA championship, hoping to pitch or play shortstop.

To hear Ainsworth tell it, he's lucky he ever saw the field. LSU had an All-America shortstop named Brandon Larson, who went on to slug 40 home runs that season.

"They saw him hit," Ainsworth said, "they saw me hit, and they said, `Look, you're going to be a pitcher.'"

That plan got derailed when Ainsworth was forced to undergo Tommy John ligament-transplant surgery in his right elbow after his freshman season. But Ainsworth came back from that procedure even stronger.

"After his freshman year, he became a force," Bertman said. "He got healthy, and all of a sudden, he could throw hard."

Ainsworth became the ace of LSU's staff, and the Giants saw enough to make him their first-round pick (No. 24 overall) in the 1999 amateur draft.

He went from a walk-on to a can't-miss prospect, teaming with Milwaukee's Ben Sheets and Houston's Roy Oswalt on the gold-medal-winning 2000 U.S. Olympic team.

Ainsworth made the Giants' starting rotation out of spring training in 2002 before a series of setbacks put his promising big league career on hold.

Early in that World Series season, the Giants had a dilemma. Jason Schmidt, the team's budding young ace, was coming back from the disabled list, and to make room on the roster, they had to send down one of two rookies.

Ainsworth had a 1.69 ERA, but Ryan Jensen had a 1.40 ERA, so the Giants sent Ainsworth back to Triple-A.

He figured he'd be back soon since teams rarely go through a season without having a starting pitcher get injured. But, in a remarkable feat, San Francisco didn't have a pitcher miss another start the rest of the season.

Ainsworth dominated the Pacific Coast League but didn't return to the big leagues until the roster expanded in September. He traveled with the team through the playoffs but didn't participate.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean knew Ainsworth would survive.

"He was always much more mature and focused than the average kid," Sabean said.

Last spring, when the Giants traded Livan Hernandez to Montreal, Ainsworth returned to the starting rotation. He went 5-4 with a 3.82 ERA in 11 starts before a mysterious injury forced him to the disabled list.

Ainsworth had been experiencing pain in his right shoulder back in spring training, but it took until June for the team to realize he had a fractured right shoulder blade.

Then, to Ainsworth's surprise, the Giants traded him to the Orioles for Ponson at the July 31 deadline, along with pitchers Damian Moss and Ryan Hannaman.

So while Moss struggled in Baltimore last season, Ainsworth quietly recovered from his injury. He made three brief relief appearances over the final eight days of the season, posting an 11.57 ERA.

The Orioles were thrilled just to get him back on the mound.

"The ball's deceptive when it leaves his hand," said Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley. "It's kind of deceptive. Even late in the season, I saw him throw 93 mph, but it didn't look like he was throwing 93.

"It reminded me of a pitcher I had with Kansas City, Blake Stein. Fastball hitters were consistently late on his fastball. They were fouling him off on fastball counts, and that's a dead giveaway. When a pitcher has that deception, he's got a lot of margin for error."

Ainsworth has logged only 96 innings in the big leagues, but the Orioles consider him a virtual lock to make their starting rotation. He has as good of a chance as anyone to be the No. 2 starter behind Ponson, who left San Francisco as a free agent and re-signed with the Orioles for three years, $22.5 million.

The Orioles' chances of moving up in the American League East may seem slim on paper, but Ainsworth is one of the great unknowns who could make a huge difference. He knows that, and it doesn't seem to bother him one bit.

"I'm ready to roll," Ainsworth said. "I want to prove to everyone that I think Baltimore got the better end of the [Ponson] trade."

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