- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Summoned by Lee Mazzilli for a meeting in the manager’s office, Sidney Ponson approached the door with more than a small measure of trepidation.

“I thought I did something wrong,” Ponson said.

Actually, because the right-hander did so many things right last year, Ponson was told by Baltimore’s new manager that he would be the Orioles’ starting pitcher on Opening Day April4 against the Boston Red Sox.

It will be the first such honor for Ponson, now the ace of the staff after opening the 2003 season as the No.4 pitcher in the Orioles’ rotation.

“I can tell you right now, Sidney will be our Opening Day pitcher — barring anything that arises,” Mazzilli said yesterday. “We signed him for a reason.”

Ponson never had a winning season in the major leagues until last year, when he went 14-6 with the Orioles before being traded to the San Francisco Giants minutes before the July31 nonwaiver trade deadline.

After receiving little run support in going 3-6 with San Francisco, Ponson became a free agent and signed a $22.5million, three-year contract with Baltimore last month. He heads a young staff that includes Rodrigo Lopez, who started on Opening Day last season but staggered to a 7-10 finish.

The rotation also will probably include Kurt Ainsworth, obtained in the deal that sent Ponson to San Francisco.

Former Orioles manager Mike Hargrove usually waited until the final two weeks of the exhibition season to announce his Opening Day starter. Mazzilli, in contrast, felt it was important to give the 26-year-old Ponson an immediate shot of confidence.

“It’s good to know what your manager wants you to do. It kind of eases your mind a little bit,” Mazzilli said. “I think players like to know that. I know I did when I was a player. I’d like to think that by knowing it early, it was good for him and he appreciated it.”

Ponson was delighted to receive the news, and is eager to fulfill the expectations that accompany such a prestigious assignment.

“He made his mind up that I’ll be his ace, and he let me know that the first day of spring training,” Ponson said. “You know you have to prepare for that day. You don’t have to shuffle things around; now I can put my schedule together and work off that.”

Still, Ponson isn’t quite ready to start securing Opening Day tickets for family and friends. That’s because he’s been around long enough to know a lot can happen before the Orioles begin the Mazzilli era against the Red Sox.

“It’s the second day of spring training. We have about six weeks to go,” Ponson said. “Ask me how I feel a week before the season starts. Right now it is an honor, I’m happy to have it, but the big picture is that I have to get myself ready. I can’t sit and wait for the day to come.”

As he concluded a brief interview session, Ponson prepared for another trip to Mazzilli’s office. This time, though, it was to deliver a cup of coffee — the price for committing the first error during a fielding drill for pitchers.

“That’s OK,” Ponson said. “It makes it fun.”

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