Ponson growing into role as ace

ORIOLES FOCUS

April 25, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

For the third time in less than a month, the Orioles' Sidney Ponson will be matched against one of the toughest pitchers in baseball when he faces the Toronto Blue Jays in today's series finale.

He has pitched twice against Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez. This time, it will be Roy Halladay, who won 22 games last year and earned a little honor called the American League Cy Young Award.

It is a burden Ponson freely accepted when he signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract in January. He came back to Baltimore to be the ace of a young starting rotation, but he really is an ace in training - the No. 1 starter by default.

No disrespect intended. He is 2-0 with a 3.91 ERA after four starts and the Orioles won both of the games against the Red Sox. He has stepped up at all the right times to help the club get off to an uplifting start, but his past two games were a study in contrast for a developing pitcher still figuring himself out.

He threw just 88 pitches in a masterful performance against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Tuesday night, showing just how efficient he can be when his mind is in tune with his talented right arm.

He was an entirely different pitcher five days earlier in Boston, shaking off veteran catcher Javy Lopez repeatedly as he squandered positive counts and forced himself into fastball situations against one of the game's best offensive lineups.

It's almost hard to believe that both games were pitched by the same guy, but youth and inconsistency go hand-in-hand even for the sport's best twentysomething pitchers.

"The day I pitched in Boston, I was trying to trick them," Ponson said. "When you get behind 2-1, 2-0 on the count, they're going to be waiting on the fastball. I was disappointed in myself."

So Ponson was determined to visit the other extreme Tuesday night, pitching with so much confidence that he probably threw too many strikes (71 out of 88 pitches), but the Devil Rays were so overmatched they managed just four hits and one run.

Pitching coaches have an expression for what Ponson did Tuesday night. It's called "trusting your stuff."

He knew he didn't need to be perfect to beat the Devil Rays. He just had to be himself.

"I don't think he questioned any of his stuff in Boston," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "I think he gave it everything he had. He was facing a pretty good team, so your game plan is subject to change, as opposed to a different team in a different ballpark."

Nevertheless, Ponson learned a lesson from the Boston game that he was able to put to good use his next time out. It is that kind of mental adjustment that could soon transform him from No. 1 starter in training to bona fide pitching ace.

"Everybody has times when you don't trust yourself," Ponson said. "I told myself [Tuesday], if I'm going to get beat, they're going to have to beat me on my first pitch. My fastball is my best pitch. I'm going to be aggressive and hopefully I'll throw enough quality pitches to get those guys out."

No doubt, there was a little bit of the old Ponson out there, too - the guy who said "the heck with it" and just started throwing the ball at the glove - but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"I'm not afraid of failure," he said. "I've been there. So I think I know what it takes to fail, and what it takes to have a little bit of success."

The kid just might be growing up.

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