• It will be tough for the Orioles- Nationals matchup to join the ranks of great baseball rivalries. • A closer look at the Nationals' rivals in the NL East. • Thomas Boswell: The old rivalry between Washington and Baltimore should not take long to heat up. • The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is the best in sports and only figures to get more intense this season. • A timeline of the Red Sox and Yankees' shared history. • Many teams have laid claim to being the top rival of the Yankees. • Started in New York City and continued in California, the Giants- Dodgers rivalry is one for the ages. • Baseball Preview Section
Yet it was Ponson -- not one of the emerging youngsters -- who ended up pitching the final exhibition game of the year after being demoted to fourth starter. In his best outing of the spring, he earned a 9-2 win against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park just one day prior to the season opener Monday against the Oakland Athletics.
"I'm very pleased with the improvement we've seen with everybody and the condition everybody came in with," Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said. "I'm extremely pleased that everybody in baseball is calling us too young to pitch. I love that.
"I think we're going to turn a lot of heads this year. I'm excited. I think the ability to change speeds from everybody in the starting rotation [excites me]."
Baltimore's five starters, who average just 26.6 years of age, accumulated a 3.05 ERA in 103 1/3 innings this spring. Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard, slotted second and third in the rotation, respectively, both established themselves. Bruce Chen, who won the fifth spot in the rotation on Friday, did not allow a run in 14 2/3 innings.
It was Ponson, with seven years of major league service, who had not shown much before Sunday. It was only his third start of the spring, though he did pitch in an intrasquad and a minor league game. Ponson pitched six innings, allowing two runs -- none earned -- while throwing a spring-high 96 pitches against the Phillies.
"It was outstanding," Manager Lee Mazzilli said.
"It was everything what I wanted out of him. I was just looking at his velocity and his sequence of pitches."
Ponson, 28, said the cold weather -- 46 degrees at the start of the game -- made it difficult to be effective.
"I couldn't feel the ball today," Ponson said. "I just needed to get work in."
Baltimore hoped Ponson would finally assume the ace role the team envisioned when it signed him to a three-year, $22.5 million contract prior to the 2004 season. But Ponson's off-field distractions -- an arrest for drunk driving, an altercation at a bar and the continuation of his court case in Aruba stemming from a fight on Christmas day -- proved too much to overcome.
Ponson's role changes by being designated as the fourth starter. No longer will he likely face the opposing team's best pitcher. Those assignments will go to either Rodrigo Lopez or Cabrera.
The rotation will be aided by an exemplary bullpen anchored by B.J. Ryan, whom Mazzilli named as his closer. Jorge Julio, Steve Reed, Steve Kline, John Parrish and Rick Bauer will aid Ryan.
"I think B.J. can do anything on the field," Miller said. "When he gets overused or used too many days in a row, we have another guy [Julio] who can do the job as well."
Because Sunday's game was hosted by the Phillies of the National League, the pitchers batted instead of designated hitters. In the fourth inning, Ponson sent a hard drive down the left field line. While left fielder Pat Burrell searched for the ball, Ponson casually jogged to second base with a double.
"I just took my time to go to second," Ponson said.
While at second, Ponson looked toward the dugout and delivered a large grin.
"Don't bring that up, please," Mazzilli said. "I'll never hear the end of that."
It was a rare smile for Ponson, who has spent most of the past week, since reports surfaced of his DUI in January, wearing a steady frown. The usually gregarious Ponson still appears displeased with reporters, answering most questions without much emotion.
After his interview, Ponson finished packing and headed out of the clubhouse. His long spring was finally over.