Sore elbow might be at root of Ponson's ongoing struggle

July 04, 2005|By Peter Schmuck

SIDNEY PONSON walked off the field in the second inning yesterday to a chorus of boos, and who could blame the crowd of 41,655 for being disgusted after 1 1/3 innings of fireworks in broad daylight?

Sir Sidney surrendered six runs and any real hope of the Orioles picking up an important game on the first-place Red Sox in a performance that was ugly even by the standards of a guy who entered the game with the ninth-worst ERA (5.35) among American League starting pitchers and now has allowed the most hits (136) by a starter in either league.

He struck out the first batter he faced and there were five runs on the scoreboard before he got the second out of the game.

What's up with that?

The obvious conclusion is that Sidney continues to be Sidney, a young man who once had unlimited potential and now regularly pushes the Orioles to the limit of their patience. But it's probably not that simple.

There have been whispers that Ponson is pitching with a sore elbow, which would explain a lot about his uneven performance over the past few weeks. He has been spending a lot of time with an ice bag on his arm and has been seen wearing an elastic sleeve. It doesn't take Dr. Frank Jobe to figure out what that means.

Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer put Ponson's physical condition on the street during yesterday's telecast and said later that the burly right-hander has admitted to him that elbow stiffness has made it difficult to get loose on the mound. The same thing apparently happened against the New York Yankees in Ponson's previous start, but he battled through it for eight innings in an uplifting victory for the Orioles.

But when Palmer's comments got to the clubhouse after yesterday's game, Ponson bristled.

"I don't know where Palmer gets his information," Ponson said. "I'm healthy. If I wasn't, I'd be on the DL."

Ponson and the Orioles insist there is nothing going on in his right arm that is out of the ordinary ... that he has been pitching with some level of discomfort for the past couple of years. Sometimes, he skips his side work to let the elbow calm down.

"Everybody who pitches 100 innings in the major leagues is going through that kind of stuff," Ponson said. "It's part of the game. There are a lot of guys in here who aren't 100 percent."

Manager Lee Mazzilli said basically the same thing, but the more he talked about Ponson, the more he used words and phrases that make you wonder just how much that elbow hurts.

"Sidney's a fighter," Mazzilli said. "He has his aches and pains like everybody else, but he's all right. He's a fighter."

The trouble is, he's not fighting the good fight right now. His performance yesterday notwithstanding, he's giving the Orioles important innings, but the quality of the work is not going to get the team where it wants to go.

The reaction of the crowd said it all, but maybe the fans would have treated him differently if they knew that he was dealing with chronic elbow stiffness.

Sidney always talks tough. He always claims that negative stuff slides right off his back. Maybe you believe him, maybe you don't, but you have to figure the booing would be more hurtful if he's pitching through significant arm soreness.

"I've been booed here before," he said. "If I pitch a good game, they'll cheer."

Of course, a sore Sidney would be just what the Orioles need as they head into a six-game stretch against the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. So much for the happy prospect of reassembling the original batting order and starting rotation after the All-Star break. In fact, the need to acquire another effective starter seems to get more urgent by the day.

Veteran right-hander James Baldwin took over in the second inning and pitched 4 2/3 innings of solid middle relief, serving notice that he is available to start if the Orioles decide to give Sidney some time to get healthy.

Maybe that wouldn't be a bad idea. The Orioles could give Baldwin a spot start in Ponson's place this weekend against the Red Sox and Sidney could take advantage of the All-Star break to get nearly two weeks off.

Mazzilli said last night that he isn't pondering any change in the rotation, in part because Baldwin has been doing such a good job in his present role. Ponson isn't looking to take a sick day either, because he doesn't think his health is the issue.

"Why would you do that?" he said. "I'm good."

The reason you might do it - even if Ponson is telling the whole truth - is because it's a long season and it might be an opportunity to get him rejuvenated for the second half. Sure, he puts up innings, but he has given up 16 earned runs in his past 14 2/3 innings and he has one victory in the past month.

Mazzilli showed that he isn't afraid to make the tough decision when he sat down Sammy Sosa for the weekend. Now, he's got another situation that might benefit from a decisive hand.

There are times when Ponson needs someone to do the thinking for him - both on and off the field. This might be one of those times.

Contact Peter Schmuck at

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