When the Orioles discuss Sidney Ponson, they speak of their future -- an organizational product with immeasurable potential and enough talent to overcome inexperience and recent arm problems. They think it possible Ponson will become the club's first 20-game-winner since 1984.
Then they see last night's 9-5 loss to the New York Yankees and wonder how much of Ponson's recent struggles can be traced to fatigue and how much can be blamed on his reluctance to alter tendencies long since brought to his attention.
Before an announced Camden Yards crowd of 44,711, the Orioles provided Ponson leads of 4-1 and 5-4 only to be overwhelmed by his vulnerability to the home run and a collective lack of control. The Yankees turned three of the Orioles' 11 walks into runs and, despite stranding nine runners, easily lowered their magic number for clinching the American League East to two.
"I've been making bad pitches and not hitting my spots," said Ponson, who has allowed 101 base runners in his last 52 2/3 innings. "I think I had a great start today coming out of the bullpen, but I couldn't execute my game plan. That's why they beat me. If you throw everything down the middle you're going to get hurt. I make no excuses. I pitched a bad game."
Manager Ray Miller was without relievers Jim Corsi, Doug Johns, Al Reyes and Arthur Rhodes, all of whom are bothered by various nagging injuries, and admitted pushing Ponson because of his thin bullpen.
"If I'd had Johns available, he would have been in there in the fourth. If I'd had Rhodes he would have been there in the fifth," said Miller.
Instead, Ponson started the sixth and was punished with three runs, turning a 5-4 lead into a 7-5 deficit. Four hits, a walk and Ponson's throwing error on Ricky Ledee's infield single preceded rookie second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez breaking a 5-5 tie with a two-run single through second base. Ponson watched the play end from his knees. "I think he really tried hard tonight. He probably tried too hard," said Miller. "That's why you show up at spring training in the best shape of your life. He's 22. He's still a young man. He's not used to pitching this much. You feel fine physically, but your legs and your arms start to tire out a little bit and you just don't throw the ball where you want to."
After completing three of his last six starts through Aug. 10, Ponson (12-12) has gone 1-5 with a 7.01 ERA in his last nine appearances.
Miller and pitching coach Bruce Kison had Ponson miss a turn earlier this month because of what they saw as fatigue. Inexperience -- Ponson had never pitched more than 140 innings in any previous season -- and a weight condition are cited by Miller as the causes.
"It's why we tried to shut him down for nine days. It's a learning experience," Miller said. "It's another reason for him to go home and think about getting on the same program as B. J. [Surhoff] and [Mike] Bordick. It is a long grind. That's why you marvel at guys like [Roger] Clemens, [Randy] Johnson and Nolan Ryan.
"I think it's a good experience for him. If he's willing to make that 100 percent devotion to it I think he has a chance of being a No. 1 pitcher. Or he can choose the Rocky Coppinger way. That's not a good way to go."
Scheduled to wrap up the season Sunday vs. Boston, Ponson would have become the youngest Orioles pitcher to win 15 games since Palmer in 1966 with three more wins.
Miller, who says Ponson is blessed with 20-win potential, has suggested Ponson join Surhoff and Bordick in working with strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop this winter. Ponson says he is more likely to return to Aruba and hire a personal trainer.
"I'm going to work hard in the off-season to be in better shape than this season," said Ponson. "It's a strange game. I could show up next season in better shape and they beat the devil out of me. That's the way I look at it. But you want to give yourself every chance to succeed."
The Yankees exploited Ponson's first-inning walk of Derek Jeter for a 1-0 lead. The Orioles answered quickly against Yankees starter Ed Yarnall with designated hitter Albert Belle's two-run double, leaving the cleanup hitter and reigning American League Player of the Week with 30 RBIs this month, tying Eddie Murray's club record for the month set in 1980.
The Orioles jacked the lead to 4-1 in the second inning after the bottom of the order created a first-and-second situation with one out. Both runners were moving on Rich Amaral's grounder and scored on Bordick's broken-bat single to center.
Ponson held the lead for only four hitters. Having allowed home runs in 20 of his previous 26 starts, Ponson proved a repeat offender once again when Tino Martinez yanked his first pitch into the right-center-field bleachers. The three-run homer was the 35th allowed by Ponson in 210 innings this season. It also tied him for second-most in the league along with giving him a piece of the club record previously shared by Robin Roberts (1963) and Scott McGregor (1986).
Ryan Minor's third homer this season -- and the Orioles' 200th -- gave Ponson a 5-4 lead in the fourth inning. This time the Yankees waited until the sixth inning to respond, stacking three runs with four hits, an intentional walk and Ponson's own off-balance error.
Ponson dropped a 5-5 game with two outs when Jimenez, who was playing only because Chuck Knoblauch left with a sore left thumb, rolled a two-run single.
A bullpen flashback began as B. J. Ryan and Gabe Molina walked six of the 10 hitters they faced. The Yankees scored two unnecessary runs in the eighth as the Orioles groped for two hits in the last five innings as reliever Ramiro Mendoza (8-9) got the win and Mariano Rivera struck out two of three hitters in the ninth.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Yankees' Roger Clemens (14-9, 4.51) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (17-7, 3.62)
Tickets: About 4,000 remain
Pub Date: 9/29/99