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Orioles Unsure of Their Ace

Ponson or Lopez: Who Knows?

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page E01

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 19 -- The Aruban with the shrinking belly and the loud mouth threw the first official pitch of spring training. In an interview just prior to taking the field, he answered questions about his disappointing 2004 season but did not discuss his recent imprisonment or discontent with the country that had knighted him not long ago.

After his final response, Baltimore Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson grabbed his glove, walked outside and played catch with Bruce Chen in the outfield of Fort Lauderdale Stadium. The workout lasted only five minutes and soon Ponson vanished to meet with friends. He is considered the team's ace.

Orioles pitcher Sidney Ponson lost 30 to 35 pounds in the offseason but he still has a court date in his native Aruba hangin over his head. (Ben Margot -- AP)

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Rodrigo Lopez walked into the clubhouse largely unnoticed and mostly ignored. He is not physically imposing and his voice rarely raises above a whisper. He was the team's best starting pitcher last year.

On the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to spring training, the Orioles have yet to determine their number one starter. Ponson is the most talented, but has not shown the consistency for the role. Lopez has the statistics but not the makeup. At this point, neither is considered a number one starter, but without a big-name acquisition, the Orioles will have to send one of them out on April 4 against the Oakland Athletics.

"It doesn't bother me one bit," pitching coach Ray Miller said. "To me you get your best five pitchers out there. I think this team has five future number ones."

Always thought to have the talent of a superior starting pitcher, Ponson has often been undone by his activities off the field. This season starts with a looming court date in Aruba on March 3 to answer charges stemming from an altercation with a judge. Because of that, Ponson won't pitch in the team's spring opener that day.

Ponson declined to talk about the incident, though he did question a report earlier this offseason that said he no longer would visit his home country. Ponson said he would visit Aruba for short periods of time.

Ponson enters the spring having lost a significant amount of weight. Miller estimates Ponson has shed 30 to 35 pounds, though the pitcher still is hardly svelte. Regardless, the weight loss perhaps shows a new dedication by Ponson. Last year, while fighting a weight problem, Ponson had an 11-15 record with a portly 5.30 ERA after signing a three-year, $22.5 million deal prior to the season.

"I have a lot of points to prove," Ponson said. "That I'm a better pitcher than I was last year. I probably put a lot of pressure on myself. I didn't pitch good in the first half."

Lopez is the pitcher most deserving of an Opening Day start. He began the season in the bullpen but ended up leading all Orioles starters in wins (14) and ERA (3.59).

"Last year I didn't think I was going to the bullpen," Lopez said. "Now the manager already knows me. In that respect I'm happy. I'm ready to work without thinking I have to impress anybody."

Perhaps in preparation for throwing a slew of innings, Lopez chose not to play winter ball in Mexico for the first time since 1996. Twice Lopez suited up to play in the Mexican League playoffs, but at the last moment chose not to pitch. He ignored several requests to join Mexico's Caribbean World Series team. Miller believes Lopez arrived to camp in the best shape of his life. It would not be so far-fetched to imagine Lopez, acquired in 2001 as a minor league free agent, could be the team's Opening Day starter.

"Rodrigo has earned it every bit," Baltimore Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Rodrigo could do the job."

The two pitchers, whose lockers are side by side in the team's clubhouse, often joke with each other. Any animosity in the competition for the top slot in the rotation escapes both.

"I came here because I wanted to be one of the best pitchers in baseball," Lopez said. "It doesn't matter where [in the rotation] I pitch."

"Ray and Lee will decide that," Ponson said. "After the first day, we need to win to get to October."

The first day of competition ended quickly. Most pitchers had left the training complex by noon. The first official workout isn't until Sunday.

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