Rangers down O's, Ponson

Ponson predicament at hand for Orioles

July 29, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

THAT WASN'T just a Sandy Alomar one-hopper that injured Sidney Ponson's pitching hand and knocked him out of what could have been his last start for the Orioles last night.

That was a message, clear and pointed, from whatever higher authorities govern baseball and control what is right and just.

The message? Sorry, Orioles. You're the ones who gave Ponson $22.5 million in January 2004. He's your problem.

You can't run from that failed gamble, trade him and make him someone else's problem. You're stuck with him.

Oh, sure, there's still a chance the Orioles will find another team to take Ponson before Sunday's trade deadline; even though he is still owed $10 million, a few teams were interested in him before he injured the thumb on his pitching hand in the third inning last night.

But the injury, while seemingly not serious, is going to make the Orioles' job harder. Pitchers with sore thumbs are especially hard to move in July, when teams are looking for immediate help.

The Orioles obviously still want to trade him, as his injury became somewhat of a sensitive subject during last night's game. It was first reported to the media as a torn thumbnail to be evaluated in a few days, but then came a correction - it was a contusion. Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli confirmed the latter diagnosis after the game.

Whatever it is, the injury was fitting in that it represented a dramatic turn in the road, an unexpected twist, which have become the norm in the Ponson saga.

Other twists have included a punch thrown at a judge on a beach, 11 days spent in an Aruban jail and a vow to behave better followed by an arrest for driving under the influence.

Meanwhile, Ponson has struggled this season, getting pounded by opponents (who are hitting .326 against him) while still managing to win seven games and chew up his usual share of innings, for better or worse.

The Orioles expected more from a pitcher who signed a three-year deal to serve as a cornerstone of their rotation.

They wanted wins, not twists, but Ponson is 18-24 with a 5.48 ERA since signing the deal, and winless in his past seven starts.

It's easy now to look back and say the Orioles never should have signed him, but in reality, there was some logic to the move. He was comfortable here and coming off a 17-win season, and it was reasonable to believe he could capably fill a hole in a rotation, even if he didn't win 17 every year. He was a relative bargain anyway at less than $8 million per season; the top pitchers in today's market make almost twice as much.

On the other hand, the Orioles knew Ponson was a fun-loving guy, and that giving him a barrelful of guaranteed money almost qualified as a social experiment more than a baseball transaction.

Would a young man of such obvious appetites be able to continue performing at a high level while knowing that, in a sense, nothing was riding on how he fared?

That was the essential question all along, and the Orioles apparently have decided they know the answer.

Sure, it's always possible a pitcher of Ponson's talent can turn himself around, especially if he leaves. If anything is obvious from the past few weeks, it's that he needs a new set of circumstances.

When he took the mound against the Rangers last night, knowing that he had been traded to San Diego a few days earlier in a deal that died, he seemed mad at everyone - his employer, the media, the home fans who boo him.

The fuming mind-set had worked for him in his previous start at Tampa Bay. He threw seven solid innings.

How would he respond now, when the team needed a lift after a tough loss the night before, yet he was in the spotlight?

He was sharp for 2 1/3 innings, allowing two hits without getting into any trouble.

"I liked the way he threw those couple of innings. He was throwing the ball well," Mazzilli said.

But then Alomar - the same guy who hit a line drive that bloodied Mike Mussina on the same mound in 1998 - hit a ball at Ponson that pinned the pitcher's hand against his thigh.

Ponson winced and walked off the field without even waiting to consult with the trainers coming to look at him. He knew he couldn't throw another pitch.

It was an odd ending, quiet, confusing. Was he hurt badly? What would this do to the rumored trades?

As often happens with Ponson, it was impossible to know what would happen next.

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