Tuesday, February 27, 2001

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. No one who knows the game of baseball seems to doubt Sidney Ponson has the tools to be a dominating major league pitcher. He has the velocity, command of four pitches and throws strikes.

The question hounding the Baltimore Orioles for three years, though, is not whether the right-hander can become a star but when it’s finally going to happen.

Thus, is 2001 a make-or-break season for Ponson?

“It doesn’t have to be,” Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove said. “He’s only 24 years old. But certainly this is the year you’d like to see it happen. As each year goes by, it gets closer to the time when it needs to happen, when he becomes the kind of pitcher that with his talents he should be.”

Indeed, with a fairly reliable offense on board and a proven winner in new staff ace Pat Hentgen, the key to the Orioles’ 2001 season may rest in large part on Ponson’s broad shoulders.

Along with fellow right-hander Jose Mercedes, Ponson is being counted upon to anchor Baltimore’s starting rotation. To do that, the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Aruba will need to make that crucial progression in a pitcher’s career from innings-eater to top-notch hurler.

“After last year [9-13, 4.82 ERA], I have to try to redeem myself, show these guys that I can pitch here,” Ponson said. “I’m looking forward to this season. I feel good, and I think we have a good thing going on here.”

A workhorse since joining the Orioles’ roster in 1998 he has averaged 216 innings the last two seasons Ponson has shown flashes of brilliance.

He tied ex-teammate Mike Mussina for third place in the American League with six complete games last year, going the distance in three of his final seven starts. In his second-to-last start, Ponson held the Boston Red Sox to four hits in a 3-1 complete game victory at Fenway Park.

But as a potential staff ace with a 29-34 career record and a 4.89 ERA, he has yet to get over the proverbial hump.

He also has had trouble growing up. In one of last season’s more bizarre moments, Ponson and two teammates were reprimanded and fined by Hargrove for leaving the team without permission in New York in July to attend a Metallica concert in Baltimore.

“He’s still a very young guy,” Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley said. “People don’t realize there’s hardly anybody in baseball who’s pitched as many innings as him his first couple years in the big leagues. There’s very few people who come on the scene and establish themselves at a real high level right away.”

The Orioles’ front office senses that Ponson is ready for a breakthrough. The club avoided arbitration with him two weeks ago by agreeing to a one-year deal worth $2.1 million, and a long-term contract continues to be discussed.

“I would say he’s on the verge [of breaking through],” Wiley said. “He’s got a quality arm and quality control. If he comes around like he should, he should be one of the better pitchers in the American League. At times, he is already. But he needs to become more consistent because that’s what it’s all about.”

Wiley is beginning to see that consistency. As senior director of player personnel for the Colorado Rockies, he watched Ponson pitch several times last season. He saw a maturing pitcher who seems ready to grow up.

“I saw a different focus than I saw earlier in his career,” Wiley said. “Not that I hadn’t seen great stuff. I just saw a little more determination. That’s something we need to build on.”

While doing his part to mature as a ballplayer, Ponson still goes through his momentary mental lapses.

In the Orioles’ intrasquad game yesterday, Ponson needed only 10 pitches to retire the first three batters he faced. Wanting to give him a little more work, Hargrove and Wiley kept the inning going past three outs, only to watch as Ponson gave up a double to Albert Belle and an RBI single to Jeff Conine.

Baltimore continues to have faith in him, though, so much so that Hargrove has not ruled out making Ponson his Opening Day starter. He will start in Friday’s exhibition opener against St. Louis.

For now, Ponson is not concerned with the specifics of his role in the Orioles’ rotation.

“I don’t think I’m going to be ‘the guy,’ ” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure just to pitch in the big leagues. If you add more pressure to yourself, you’re going to be stressed, you’re not going to pitch well and you’re going to get frustrated. I just go out and pitch. I have fun out there and try to help my team win.”

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