When the Orioles discuss Sidney Ponson, they speak of an organizational product with immeasurable potential, a talent able to overcome inexperience and recent arm problems with sheer talent. They think it possible that Ponson will become the club's first 20-game winner since 1984.
Then they watch 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.
This time before an announced Camden Yards crowd of 44,711, the Orioles gave 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 by the staff. The Yankees turned three of the Orioles' 11 walks into runs and, despite stranding nine runners, easily lowered their magic number for clinching the AL East to two.
After completing three of his last six starts through Aug. 10, Ponson (12-12) has gone 1-5 in his last nine appearances. His ERA in the span is 7.01 with 72 hits and 29 walks dotting 52 2/3 innings. The numbers confirm manager Ray Miller's impression of a tired pitcher. Ponson succumbed to a pair of three-run innings, one a quick hit and the other a slow fizz.
"His velocity is still decent. But that's what happens when you get tired: you throw too many pitches over the middle of the plate," said Miller. "Young people with good arms take a while to mature. You're going to have situations where you rush too much and walk people or you make bad pitches and they hit them out of the ballpark. Those are growing pains."
The Orioles see Ponson, 22, as a huge piece of their immediate future, so much so that he has been deemed "untouchable" since last December when virtually every team in the major leagues approached just-hired general manager Frank Wren about him.
The Orioles were close to completing a package deal with the San Diego Padres including pitcher Joey Hamilton but flinched when Ponson's name was inserted into the talks. No less a figure than Hall of Famer and HTS broadcaster Jim Palmer has since likened the Aruban's potential to his own.
At times this year Ponson has prompted Miller to rave about his ability to throw 96 mph in the ninth inning along with his desire for a heavy workload.
Had Ponson won three more starts he would have become the youngest Orioles pitcher to win 15 games since Palmer in 1966. Instead, Ponson heads to this season's exit having repeatedly frustrated his manager.
Ponson is unafraid to throw strikes but has irritated Miller with his lack of attention to location within the strike zone.
Blessed with the staff's most overpowering fastball, Ponson has yet to moderate his effort, making it easier for hitters to time the pitch. Miller suggests Ponson sacrifice several notches off his fastball in order to "find something extra" in critical situations.
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. He was undone by a two-out walk to Bernie Williams and a record-tying pitch fed to first baseman Tino Martinez.
Having allowed home runs in 20 of his previous 26 starts, Ponson proved a repeat offender once again when Martinez yanked his first pitch into the right-center-field bleachers.
The three-run homer represented the 35th allowed by Ponson in 210 innings this season. The home runs tie 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).
"I think he really tried hard tonight. He probably tried too hard," Miller said. "That's why you've got to show up at spring training in the best shape of your life. 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. If you throw the ball down the middle, that's what happens. He's given up a bunch of home runs."
Ryan Minor's third home run -- and the Orioles' 200th -- to lead off the fourth inning gave Ponson a 5-4 lead. This time the Yankees waited until the sixth inning to jump him, 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 rookie second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez rolled a two-run single through second base. The play left Ponson kneeling in front of the plate immediately before Miller removed him down 7-5.
"It's why we tried to shut him down for nine days. It's a learning experience," said Miller. "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," said Miller. "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 to be a No. 1 pitcher. Or he can choose the Rocky Coppinger way. That's not a good way to go."
"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."
A bullpen flashback began after Ponson's exit as B. J. Ryan and Gabe Molina walked six of the 10 hitters they faced. The Yankees added a two-run eighth as the Orioles groped for two hits in the last five innings.
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