- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

BALTIMORE — Not that anyone needed to be reminded of the difference between Randy Johnson and Sidney Ponson, but the 28,927 at Camden Yards last night saw first-hand why Johnson is one of the game’s all-time best and Ponson is just another in a long line of pitchers who fail to live up to their potential.

Neither Johnson, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 40-year-old future Hall-of-Famer, nor Ponson, the Baltimore Orioles’ 27-year-old project, had his best stuff on the mound. Even at something less than his best, though, Johnson still managed to hold the Orioles to one run and three hits over seven innings.

Ponson? He was tagged for six runs and 11 hits and exited in the eighth inning to a chorus of boos as the Diamondbacks cruised to an 8-1 interleague victory.

Ponson, dubbed Baltimore’s ace after signing a three-year, $22.5million contract last winter, has now lost four straight while seeing his ERA balloon to an unsightly 6.47.

“He’s a competitor, and nobody’s harder onhim than himself,” Jerry Hairston said of Ponson, who blew off reporters following the game. “He’s going through a tough stretch, but we expect him to turn it around. He’s got too good of stuff.”

Perhaps Sir Sidney could learn something from Johnson, who is 13 years his elder, owns 177 more career wins and betters his ERA by a full four points.

Johnson also knows a thing or two about how to pitch effectively even when you don’t have your best stuff. The Big Unit’s famed fastball topped out at 95 mph on a warm, muggy night in Baltimore, and his usually devastating slider produced only four strikeouts.

That didn’t stop Johnson from posting his fifth straight victory, dating to his May18 perfect game in Atlanta, nor did it keep him from looking every bit as dominating as he was during his five Cy Young Award seasons.

“He hasn’t changed,” said Baltimore’s Javy Lopez, who faced Johnson numerous times in the National League. “He still has his good stuff, he has a command of the game. And once the team scores a run for him, he becomes an even better pitcher. He knows how to maintain a lead, that’s what he did today. He probably didn’t have his best stuff, but he knew how to use it.”

Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli tried his best to counter the imposing Johnson, writing out a lineup featuring nine right-handed batters.

Not that it mattered. Mazzilli probably could have sent out a lineup of Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray and Frank Robinson and not seen any more success.

Johnson (8-4) set the tone for the evening quickly, retiring the side in the first inning with bookend strikeouts of Brian Roberts and Melvin Mora. Though he never really found his best stuff, Johnson had little trouble mowing his way through a Baltimore squad that is hitting a league-low .237 against left-handed pitching this year.

The only real dent in Johnson’s armor was a fourth-inning run — the product of a walk to Hairston, a bloop single by Mora and Miguel Tejada’s run-scoring groundout.

Otherwise, the Orioles were at Johnson’s mercy. He retired 11 of the last 12 batters he faced and, with the Diamondbacks comfortably ahead, departed after seven innings having thrown 89 pitches.

“I only threw less than 100 pitches and I got through seven innings,” Johnson said. “As a pitcher, who wouldn’t want to do that? … I kind of say that I’ve gotten a little bit better over the years.”

Ponson (3-7) was hardly as fortunate. He surrendered back-to-back doubles off the wall in the third to Alex Cintron and Scott Hairston, an RBI single to Carlos Baerga in the fourth, an unearned run in the fifth on Mora’s throwing error and two more in the seventh before getting yanked.

Going head-to-head with Johnson, Ponson might have felt like he had to be perfect. That kind of thinking, Mazzilli said, only leads to trouble.

“You can’t put that added pressure on you,” the manager said. “If you think you can’t make mistakes … you can’t pitch like that. You’ve just got to pitch your game.”

Note — Last night’s game marked the first time brothers Jerry and Scott Hairston had played together in an organized baseball game. Jerry, 28, made his third career start in left field for Baltimore, while Scott, a 24-year-old rookie, started at second base for Arizona. The siblings are two of five family members to play in the major leagues, joining grandfather Sam, uncle John and father Jerry Sr., who attended the game.

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