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Early Bird: Ponson Ready for Start

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page E08

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., March 12 -- While sitting in front of his locker early Saturday morning, Sidney Ponson joked that his first start of the exhibition season had seemed like the last game of the World Series. Ponson had anticipated the outing so much that he arrived at the ballpark at 7:30 a.m. for a 1:05 p.m. game. He sat and talked with teammates for most of the morning, eagerly counting down the moments until he was able to step onto the mound in front of a large crowd.

"Hell, yeah, I was anxious," he said.

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By the time he reached the mound Ponson had so much pent-up energy that his stance began to fly open when he pitched, causing his throws to sail away from their intended targets.

"Sometimes you get the adrenaline flowing so bad," Ponson said. "It's just one of those things."

Ponson eventually settled his nerves and made an impressive debut, pitching four scoreless innings in the Baltimore Orioles' 0-0 tie against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The teams called the game after the 10th inning.

Ponson's start only gained significance because of a tumultuous offseason that saw him land in an Aruban jail for 11 days after being involved in an altercation on Christmas day. During spring training, Ponson flew to Aruba for his court hearing and agreed to a tentative settlement that would drop the assault charges. His first start of spring training was scheduled for Monday, but Ponson was a late scratch because the team learned he could have violated immigration laws with an appearance. Instead, Ponson pitched in a simulated game.

Baltimore owner Peter Angelos intervened and helped set up an appointment for Ponson at the U.S. Consulate in the Dominican Republic. On Wednesday, Ponson flew there and was granted his work visa the next day. Ponson settled financially with his accusers on Friday, finally ending the saga that had followed him all spring.

"I don't want to hear nothing about what happened in the past," Ponson said. "I want to talk about throwing strikes, getting outs and me losing some games and winning a lot of games. That's all I want to talk about."

Ponson said he never thought about his court troubles while he was at the park, but it often bothered him while at home.

"When I left here I was thinking about it," Ponson said. "I didn't bring outside problems to the ballpark."

Now Ponson is clearly focused on trying to recapture the reputation that compelled the Orioles to give him a three-year, $22.5 million deal prior to the 2004 season. He arrived at spring training 13 pounds lighter than last year, perhaps hoping to end the speculation that a weight problem caused an 11-15 record with a 5.30 ERA in 2004.

As the Opening Day starter last season, Ponson was considered the team's ace. Now he just wishes to pitch as well as he did two years ago, when he went 17-12 with a 3.75 ERA.

Rodrigo Lopez, 14-9 with a 3.59 ERA last year, has supplanted Ponson as the best pitcher.

With slightly more than three weeks remaining in spring training, Baltimore Manager Lee Mazzilli said he is still considering Ponson for the season opener on April 4 against the Oakland A's. At this point, it appears Lopez will get that assignment.

"I think Rodrigo should get it," Ponson said. "He was the best pitcher last year. I want to be pitching in October. I don't give a damn whether I'm the fourth or fifth starter."

The nerves that had caused Ponson's wildness early in the game had vanished by the third inning. He had allowed two hits and two walks in the first two innings. He pitched two perfect innings to end his outing. Ponson threw 56 pitches in the game, though he was scheduled to throw 70. He finished his session in the bullpen to allow another pitcher to get into the game.

Ponson likely will pitch five innings in his next start, which will be on Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals. Finally, it will seem like just another game in the exhibition season.

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