Success weighty issue for Ponson

Now graded on a scale as O's ace, he goes strong 4 innings to quiet doubts

Baseball

March 10, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. - Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson knew the sharks were lurking.

One bad start in spring training and one step onto the scale at a higher weight had led to one important outing for him yesterday against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Stumble again, Ponson knew, and his critics would try to eat him alive.

Even if it was 25 days before the regular-season opener.

"The expectations for me this year are high," Ponson said. "If I'm the owner and I'm paying a guy $7 million, believe me, I'd expect a lot of stuff from him, too."

So on a day when Ponson seemed to fully grasp what it meant to be the undisputed ace of the Orioles' staff, he went out and delivered an encouraging performance.

Ponson needed just 48 pitches to get through four innings and was in line for the victory until the Cardinals rallied to defeat the Orioles, 4-2, in 10 innings at Roger Dean Stadium.

"I thought he had control of his pitches," said Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. "He had good command. That's exactly what you're looking for when a guy starts going four innings like this."

Ponson's line wasn't altogether spectacular: four innings, three hits, one earned run, two walks, two strikeouts. But after watching Ponson pretty much breeze through the first three innings, Mazzilli saw his mettle get tested in the fourth.

The Cardinals loaded the bases with no outs, on a walk by Albert Pujols and singles by Ray Lankford and Scott Rolen. It was the kind of inning that had produced so many of Ponson's meltdowns in the past, but this time was different.

Ponson struck out Edgar Renteria for the first out and got Mike Matheny and So Taguchi to hit a pair of harmless bouncers to third base. The Cardinals scored once.

"You try to get out of an inning like that and when you just give up one run, you're OK, especially against a team that puts the ball in play a lot," Mazzilli said. "So, it was the perfect performance for me."

In the exhibition opener last Thursday, Ponson gave up three hits, one walk and two earned runs in 1 2/3 innings against the Florida Marlins. He'll have four more chances to fine-tune his arsenal before he takes the mound for the season opener against the Boston Red Sox, opposite Pedro Martinez, on April 4 at Camden Yards.

Experience has taught Ponson not to get too excited by the early starts of spring. Last year, for example, Ponson was tremendous early in camp, but he got pounded in his final three exhibition starts.

"Right now, you have to understand that these [hitters] are not ready," he said. "I've been doing this for seven years now, so I know that the last two or three starts - that means something."

Ponson tossed a seven-hitter at St. Louis last June in an 8-1 Orioles victory, and he has always fared pretty well against the Cardinals in spring training. A better test will come Sunday, when he faces those Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla.

For his career against Boston, Ponson is 1-9 with a 6.56 ERA.

When the Orioles gave Ponson his three-year, $22.5 million contract this offseason, they did it with the expectation that Ponson will turn numbers like those around.

"I think that contract I signed, there's going to be a lot of expectations from the management, the Orioles, you guys [in the media], and I know it's going to come," Ponson said. "A couple bad starts, you guys are going to say something. I'm just going to have to deal with it."

Ponson has already dealt with scrutiny about his weight this spring. He reported to camp at 264 pounds, which is the same thing he weighed at the end of last season with San Francisco but 15 pounds heavier than he was last spring.

Yesterday, Ponson said he was down to 260 pounds. He said the pounds he added from last spring are mostly muscle from all the weightlifting he did this past offseason, but he doesn't expect the critics to buy that. And he's not sure he cares.

"It came in one ear and went out the other," Ponson said. "Like I said, if I do pitch good, the weight issue will never come up. If I pitch bad, the weight issue will be one of the first things that comes up. It's been that way all the way through my career. I know how to deal with it."

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