Heavily criticized in '04, Ponson will try to prove less is more

O's expect to see trimmer, more mature pitcher today

February 20, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Having been in South Florida for more than a month after his release from an Aruban jail, Sidney Ponson is way ahead of the other pitchers in the Orioles' spring training camp. By his estimation, he already has nine or 10 bullpen sessions under his belt.

The team is more interested in what's above it.

Pitching coach Ray Miller estimates that Ponson has lost "at least 30 pounds" since Miller first saw him in June after being hired as Mark Wiley's replacement. Ponson only will say that his weight is "way better" than when he infuriated club officials last spring by reporting to Fort Lauderdale Stadium at 266 pounds.

"You guys will find out [today]," he said. "Surprise, surprise."

Pitchers and catchers will take their physical examinations before heading to the field for their first official workout. Ponson remains a curiosity -- and not just in poundage.

How will he react to the Christmas Day arrest in Aruba after a beach fight that put him in jail for 11 days, or the March 3 hearing scheduled in his homeland? And will he get off to the same slow start as last season, when he lost 12 of 15 decisions in the first half before going 8-3 after the break?

Ponson wouldn't discuss the incident in Aruba yesterday, politely declining comment except to say: "Spring training starts tomorrow. I'm looking forward to it. I don't really want to go into what happened."

The Orioles remain supportive of Ponson and expect his confinement at a Noord police station to prove beneficial in the long run.

"I look at it as being a plus," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "You're taking a negative and turning it into a positive. I think it was an epiphany for him. Something like that happens and you're a little embarrassed. It's not really you and you want to show your true self. I think his frame of mind is good."

Said Miller: "My dad used to say that everything that happens in life means something and is heading you toward something else. It's a wake-up call. Whatever happened over the winter, I think maybe he matured a little bit off it."

Poor conditioning and work habits were cited by some team officials as the primary reasons for Ponson's horrific first half. He also was burdened in a sense by the three-year, $22.5 million contract he signed as a free agent.

"I probably put a lot of pressure on myself, but now I'm focused for this year. I'm 0-0. I have a lot of points to prove, that I'm a way better pitcher than I was last year," he said.

"There were high expectations. When you walk around town, people expect you to win all the time. If you lose one game, it's like you lost the World Series to them. But the fans in Baltimore want to win so bad."

No more so than Ponson, who tweaked his offseason routine to include less time in the gym and more cardiovascular work. He ran, swam and stretched, making him more flexible than in the past. He also scaled back on the heavy weightlifting.

"My arm feels good," he said. "I feel physically good. I'm ready to go."

The Orioles were ready to lower him in the rotation, but they couldn't sign Carl Pavano or trade for Tim Hudson. Ponson still might end up second behind Rodrigo Lopez.

"Ray and Lee are going to decide that," he said. "It doesn't matter. After the first day, who cares who's No. 1? I have to be on my game. [Lopez] has to pitch as he did last year. [Daniel] Cabrera and [Erik] Bedard have to step it up, and whoever the fifth starter's going to be. We all have to step it up and win ballgames."

As for the club's pursuit of a frontline starter to nudge him from the top, Ponson said: "I was welcoming all those signings. I talked to Pavano. If he came over here and was the No. 1 starter, I'm fine with it. Why should I be mad? I want to win."

Ponson looked nothing like a staff ace before the break, and before Miller took over as pitching coach. His 12 losses in the first half set a dubious team record.

"I'm not patting myself," Miller said, "but I think I came in just at the right time for him, being totally frustrated, to have a face from the past saying, `Lets go put together a film of you pitching a bunch of good games, and let's sit down and look at that. Stop dwelling on this other [stuff] and get back to using all four pitches and start having fun playing the game.' "

Just not too much fun.

"The first half last year, there were a lot of things that went into that," executive vice president Jim Beattie said. "We need Sidney to give us innings and we need Sidney to keep us in ballgames. If he cuts down on the hits he gives up and is able to put hitters away a little more, he can be what we want him to be."

"He's probably going to come in 20 pounds lighter than he was in spring training last year, and that's part of it. The other part of it is just the approach to the game, and being professional. It's part of when you get older, you start to approach it a little bit differently. You start to understand that, yes, there are other things that I can do than just kind of show up and go through what everybody is asked to do. He's beginning to grasp that."

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