Miller is a good fit for Ponson, again

ORIOLES FOCUS

Baseball

A Look Inside

August 01, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Of all the projects Ray Miller took on when he returned as Orioles pitching coach on June 26, none was more important or more perplexing than Sidney Ponson.

Good thing for the Orioles they picked the perfect man for the job.

Miller was the manager in April 1998, when the Orioles promoted the 21-year-old Ponson to the big leagues after just one start at Triple-A. Miller saw the hard-throwing Aruban go 20-21 as he cut his teeth over the next two seasons.

When Miller was gone, things changed.

After struggling to tap into his vast potential, Ponson finally got it right last season in his final year before free agency. The reward was a three-year, $22.5 million contract and a chance to return to the Orioles after getting shipped to San Francisco at last season's July 31 trade deadline.

But by the time Miller returned, after former pitching coach Mark Wiley was fired, Ponson was pretty much a mess.

He was riding the longest losing streak of his career. And after losing two more starts under Miller's watch - extending the horrific stretch to nine straight losses - he stumbled into the All-Star break at 3-12 with a 6.29 ERA.

Beyond that, Ponson had reported to spring training at 266 pounds, at least 15 pounds heavier than he was the previous spring. The weight might not have been a big issue, but as the losses mounted, Orioles owner Peter Angelos actually began searching for ways to revoke Ponson's contract.

Enter Miller.

"I just grabbed him and hugged him, and said, `I'm the guy who brought you here out of Double-A,'" Miller said. "And I said, `I want to see what you can do. I don't want to see it all at once, but together, we can do some extra things here.'

"He's made a big effort."

Ponson had shed 6 pounds since spring training, but once Miller got here, the process accelerated. Ponson dropped 10 pounds in a month, bringing him to 250 before Thursday's start at Yankee Stadium.

It wasn't as if the Orioles had never said anything to Ponson about his weight. Just like it wasn't as if Wiley had never reminded Ponson about the importance of changing speeds.

But this time, something clicked.

Under Wiley's watch, Ponson had gone 14-6 with a 3.77 ERA last year before the Orioles traded him to San Francisco. But with the big contract, Ponson seemed burdened by the new expectations.

The more he lost, the more he reverted into a pitcher who relied too heavily on his hard sinker and slider. It was reminiscent of the way Scott Erickson used to pitch when he struggled.

Ponson lost the confidence to throw a soft changeup or curve, and pretty soon, the hitters had him pegged, punishing his every mistake because they pretty much knew what was coming.

"Now, Sidney's using all four pitches," Miller said. "That was the Sidney I knew when I called him up [in 1998]. When I got back, the first game I saw, he was nothing but sinker-slider. I told him if he changed speeds, it would allow him to get away with some mistakes."

The Orioles saw the difference Thursday, when Ponson tossed a four-hit masterpiece against the Yankees. He improved to 3-0 with a 2.05 ERA since the break.

"The only other thing I told him is to stop trying to be the savior and just be a good pitcher," Miller said. "Just because you're No. 1 or signed a big contract, you don't have to be the Rocket [Roger Clemens] and win 19 straight.

"So far, he's responded."

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