Ponson stares down nerves, Red Sox

In first game back, new ace avoids big inning to pick up win

April 05, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

On his return to Baltimore, Sidney Ponson conquered an old nemesis, solved the bitter cold weather and cured a case of the jitters.

It was the kind of performance the Orioles need - and expect - from the new leader of their rebuilt pitching staff.

Ponson worked through the rough edges of Opening Night and delivered a gritty, five-inning, 111-pitch effort against the Boston Red Sox last night.

To the 27-year-old right-hander, who was dealt to the San Francisco Giants at the trading deadline last July, the 7-2 win felt like he never left home.

"I feel like this is my home," he said. "I spent my whole career here except for two months."

After testing the market last winter, Ponson returned to the Orioles on Jan. 14 with a three-year contract. He returned not as a complementary part of the pitching rotation, but as the ace.

And in that light, he was not entirely satisfied with his opening night. His sinker worked, but his curveball didn't. He gave up seven hits and stranded nine runners before departing for Rodrigo Lopez with two outs in the sixth.

"I was not happy with it," he said of the outing. "I was happy with the outcome. [But] I made mistakes and put myself in trouble. That makes me work harder."

New Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli had no complaints, however. None that he would share, anyway.

"Sidney was great," Mazzilli said. "He went through the first few innings, then his pitch count got high real quick. He was over 100 pitches. [But] He gave me everything he had."

Considering these were the Red Sox, it was perhaps a breakthrough performance. In 12 previous career games against Boston, Ponson carried a 1-9 record and a 6.56 ERA.

It was his first win over the Red Sox since Sept. 22, 2000.

"Last year I started with them and I was in the showers in the second inning," he said. "It was payback today."

Even if the Red Sox were missing Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon, that still was Pedro Martinez on the mound for Boston. ESPN's season-opening broadcast and a sellout crowd contributed to some early nerves.

"To tell the truth, today I was nervous," Ponson said. "It was like my first big-league appearance."

He settled down quickly, though, going 0-2 in the count on three of the first four batters he faced. He surrendered a third-inning run when Manny Ramirez stroked a run-scoring single off his foot up the middle. When he finally left in the sixth, the weather and his emotions seemingly had taken their toll.

The 43-degree temperature at the start of the game only worsened with the whipping winds.

"Coming from Aruba, coming from spring training, it was hard," Ponson said of the conditions. "It was 40 degrees with 30 mile-an-hour wind. It was tough to grip the ball. But I battled through it. We'll see how I feel tomorrow."

He feels better already, however, at the sight of the Orioles' potent new lineup. Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez combined for seven hits and four RBIs from the three, four and five holes in the order.

"Our offense is good from top to bottom," he said. "It will make the starting pitcher's life easier."

Starting over

Sidney Ponson is the fifth Oriole to start on Opening Day the past five years, matching a similar run from 1988 to 1992:

The past five years

Year O's starter

2004 Sidney Ponson

2003 Rodrigo Lopez

2002 Scott Erickson

2001 Pat Hentgen

2000 Mike Mussina

The previous time

1992 Rick Sutcliffe

1991 Jeff Ballard

1990 Bob Milacki

1989 Dave Schmidt

1988 Mike Boddicker

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