As season starts, hope streaming through open window for Orioles

April 04, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

PHILADELPHIA - Sidney Ponson was chugging into second base yesterday when I had another epiphany.

It really didn't have anything to do with Sidney. I just had plenty of time to think while he was legging out his fourth-inning double in yesterday's 9-2 exhibition victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, and I'm starting to think the Orioles might finish second in the American League East.

I know, I know, I already closed escrow on that condo in Jimmyville a month ago, but that was based on a general burst of pre-April optimism. The lineup was coming together nicely and nobody knew about Ponson's further indiscretions, so it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

My enthusiasm had moderated some since then. I secretly expressed reservations about the team to Jim Hunter, who tried hard to reassure me that my original instincts had been correct. Well, first he plugged his ears and started chanting "Orioles Magic ... Feel it Happen!" to try to block out my voice, but then he pointed out the depth of the bullpen and all that run-production potential and I felt a little better.

The starting rotation lacks a true No. 1 starter and remains short on the kind of experience necessary to compete for a playoff berth, but the upside is high enough for Orioles fans to dream of 85 victories - which would be good enough for second place if something goes wrong in Boston or New York.

It's not such an outlandish thought. The Red Sox will be without pitching ace Curt Schilling for the first couple of weeks of the regular season, and the rest of their rotation isn't exactly a known quantity.

The club that ended an 86-year title drought in October lost Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe to free agency and replaced them with Matt Clement and David Wells, creating almost as much uncertainty in the Red Sox pitching staff as Orioles fans take for granted in Baltimore.

If Schilling is slow getting back in top form and Wells is unable to stay healthy, the Red Sox aren't going to be the same team that parlayed a wild-card berth into an unlikely World Series title. They wouldn't be the first big-money team to fall off the map.

The Yankees also have cracks, but nothing that is going to keep them from winning the division. Randy Johnson could win 15 games on crutches, and Mike Mussina is going to be steady as a rock. Carl Pavano may be a little shaky in his first season in the Big Apple, but he's the real deal. Kevin Brown already is hurt again, but that might actually improve team chemistry.

No, it's about the Orioles and Red Sox. The Orioles have to hope that the law of averages is on their side after seven straight losing seasons, and that a small karmic window is about to close on the Red Sox.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for Opening Day, but it could happen.

Rodrigo Lopez, who will start against Barry Zito this afternoon, isn't a No. 1 starter, but he just might be consistent enough to win 15 games and provide stability at the front of the rotation.

Daniel Cabrera, all 6 feet 7 and 97 mph of him, could emerge as one of the dominant pitchers in the league. Eric Bedard could start believing that it's OK to throw a strike when you're ahead in the count. Bruce Chen finally could have found himself all these years after he was considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game.

Which brings us back to Sir Sidney, who pitched well in his final exhibition start yesterday, giving up just two unearned runs over six innings.

There are a lot of people who are down on Ponson right now - and with good reason - but that might be just what he needs to get truly motivated to bounce back from a disappointing 2004 season and a string of embarrassing offseason incidents.

That's what popped into my mind as he was rounding first base in the fourth inning. It took him a while to get to second, but at least he didn't pull a hammy.

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