MONTREAL - Mike Hargrove is fond of using metaphors when speaking of Sidney Ponson, references such as "wild colt" and "unpolished gem." Ponson, as talented a young pitcher as there is in the American League, carries a lightning right arm, a label of "untouchable" in trade discussions and boundless potential.
There is another tag, however, he seeks to shed.
For much of his three major-league seasons, Ponson has tried unsuccessfully to harness on-field emotion. A May 18 start against the Texas Rangers may represent a turning point in a young career that so far has been equal parts accomplishment and frustration.
The youngest Orioles pitcher to reach 20 career wins since Storm Davis, Ponson possesses the hardest fastball of anyone on the team. Yet he has been followed by questions about uninspiring strikeout totals and vulnerability against home runs. Hargrove, who likens Ponson to Bartolo Colon, his flame thrower with the Cleveland Indians, adds that the 23-year-old Ponson "has a ways to go."
Urged by at least two veteran pitchers to watch himself, Ponson retreated to the Camden Yards video room and watched his mannerisms at difficult points in the Texas game. Although Ponson never criticizes his defense publicly, his body language screamed his frustration.
Tuesday at Tampa Bay suggested Ponson has taken at least a first half-step toward reaching the definition many have projected for him.
Given every opportunity to buckle because of defensive lapses, Ponson straightened himself and left the game with an 8-3 lead. A combustible bullpen effort resulted in a one-run decision.
Ponson also passed a significant test of maturity. He challenged himself two weeks before that to look beyond things that he could not control and remain focused on the task at hand. In other words, he vowed not to lose his temper. Tuesday, he endured two unearned runs and a defensive misplay in the ninth inning that cost him his second complete game. However, he kept his composure throughout and was rewarded with a win.
"I was really impressed the way he stayed composed," catcher Charles Johnson said Tuesday night. "There were a couple errors, but he didn't get rattled. He stayed composed and kept pitching. I think that shows maturity."
Said Ponson: "It doesn't do any good for me to stand out there getting upset. It tells the other team I'm mad, I'm irritated, and it only encourages them. That's not what I'm looking to accomplish."
Ponson has made63 major-league starts, winning23 while completing seven. He is viewed as a cornerstone for the franchise's future, but still exhibits some of the rough edges expected from a talent his age. However, by refusing to compound the game's difficulty with emotion, club officials believe he will take a huge step toward embracing his huge potential.
In 1998, manager Ray Miller and pitching coach Mike Flanagan were impressed by Ponson's ability to go8-9 after making just 53minor-league starts - all but one below Triple-A. Miller occasionally suggested Ponson improve his body language on the mound, but the problem didn't become a major issue until last season, when Ponson found himself at odds not only with his manager, but also with pitching coach Bruce Kison. The more he was told, the more Ponson resisted.
Hargrove and pitching coach Sammy Ellis have repackaged the message but found a more accepting audience. In the Texas start, Ponson lost his composure on the mound, reacted dismissively during a mound visit by catcher Greg Myers, then slammed his glove against the bench after leaving the game during a six-run sixth inning that trashed a 6-2 lead.
"I didn't handle that very well," he said. "I let things get to me. But everybody makes mistakes. Everybody makes errors. Instead of getting mad, I have to pick up those guys just like they pick me up."
For two years, the Orioles have tried to get Ponson to disregard his mistakes, as well as those by his defense. But for a gifted young pitcher with an explosive fastball and a stunning off-speed assortment, patience is the hardest virtue to acquire. Ponson retreated to the video room before his May 24 start to examine tapes of his Texas performance. There, he witnessed the facial expressions and slumped shoulders.
"Before, I think my ERA was 20.00 after that happened. The veterans told me to stay calm, relax and good things would happen," Ponson said.
"He's retaining an aggressive posture on the mound now," Hargrove said. "It's almost like he's saying, 'It's OK, guys. I'm going to pick you up. Let's get this thing over with.' "