Ponson turns frown, Angels upside down

Struggling O's ace turns it on to 5-hit Anaheim, 4-0, before national audience

He adjusts mechanics, attitude

`I was happy, smiling'

18-16 Orioles avert sweep

May 17, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Sidney Ponson knew his pitching mechanics were terrible. He didn't need videotape to see that. But when the struggling Orioles' ace reviewed his previous two starts in preparation for last night's game against the Anaheim Angels, he noticed something else.

The affable Aruban had forgotten how to smile. He looked so angry when he pitched, he hardly recognized himself, and Ponson has never done anything well when he's mad.

So with an ESPN audience watching, Ponson put on his best face and turned in one of the best games of his career - just when his team needed it most.

Ponson tossed his first complete-game shutout in three years, holding the Angels to five hits as the Orioles broke a three-game losing streak with a 4-0 victory before 25,448 at Camden Yards.

"Everyone needed this, but I needed it more than everyone," Ponson said. "Get the burden off my shoulders. Now, I can just relax and it'll be smooth sailing from here on."

The Orioles certainly hope so.

Their starting pitching had been a mess, and the whole staff seemed lost without anyone serving as a guidepost. Ponson, the team's Opening Night starter, was 0-3 with a 10.29 ERA in his previous four games.

He looked everywhere for answers. Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley helped fix his flawed mechanics. Chu Halabi, Ponson's longtime mentor, helped with the attitude adjustment.

"Chu knew what I was doing wrong," Ponson said. "One thing he told me is the last couple starts, it looked like I was frustrated, and I was. Things weren't going right. I went home and watched the video and started thinking a little bit.

"Today, I was happy, smiling in the dugout and on the field. I'm more relaxed."

It's easy to grin when the other team doesn't get a runner past second base for nine innings. Ponson finished with the third shutout of his career and first since June 28, 2001, against Toronto.

The Orioles broke a scoreless tie with two runs in the fifth inning against Angels starter Kelvim Escobar (2-2) and added single insurance runs in the seventh and eighth.

Ponson (3-3) ended the game by striking out Jose Guillen with a 96 mph fastball, and catcher Javy Lopez gave him a hug. It was Ponson's first win since April 20, which was also the last time everyone talked about how he was turning the corner.

That night, he tossed an 88-pitch complete game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But the four-start stretch that followed left the Orioles' brass baffled. They had handed him a three-year, $22.5 million contract for this?

"Right now, the war is not him against the hitters, it's him against himself," Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said last week.

Maybe all Ponson needed was a visit from the Angels. He is 7-0 lifetime against Anaheim, and he'll face this same team next weekend.

The Angels came to town without four of their top hitters - Troy Glaus, Darin Erstad, Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson - but still managed to bury the Orioles in an early hole to win the first two games of the series.

It was 9-0 in the second inning Friday, and 7-0 in the fourth inning Saturday.

Ponson quickly established a different tone. He needed just 49 pitches to get through the first five innings, and the two times he got into trouble - the second and the third inning - he got the Angels to ground into a double play.

But Escobar wasn't giving the Orioles anything, either. They managed just one hit before Javy Lopez and Jay Gibbons singled to start the fifth. Then Luis Matos laid down a perfect bunt single, and third baseman Shane Halter's throw hit him, bouncing up the right-field line.

Lopez scored, and Gibbons advanced to third on Halter's error. Jerry Hairston, the designated hitter, followed with a sacrifice fly, making it 2-0.

Ponson made the lead stand, getting diving catches from Matos in center field, and Larry Bigbie in left.

"We were on our toes on defense," said Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "Everybody was moving, and there were no mistakes tonight. When you have a guy on his game, and he's working fast, it usually works well together."

The Orioles have issued a major league-worst 169 walks, but the Angels got just one free pass from Ponson, who struck out four.

"There's no question he was well aware of what was going on in the past week," said Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli. "It was kind of like that attitude of, `Jump on my back and I'll take it as far as I can.' I could just see it watching him on the bench. He just seemed like he was locked in."

Hairston added a run-scoring single in the seventh, and Halter made another error in the eighth, allowing Palmeiro to score the fourth run. The Orioles won for just the second time in five games, with Ponson lowering his ERA to 5.69.

It was enough to make Mazzilli take off his hat and smile.

"He needed that," Mazzilli said, pausing for effect. "I needed that."

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