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ponson v santana: 5/11/2005

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last may 11 sidney ponson squared off against the twins' johan santana and beat him 7-4. looks like a pretty good start on paper -- 8 innings, 6 hits, 4 runs (2 earned), 2 walks, and a 17-7 groundout-flyout ratio. the only sore spot in the pitching line: 0 strikeouts. i downloaded the game this weekend to take a look at ponson and see what he did well that particular afternoon.

ponson throws both four-seam and two-seam fastballs, having added the latter to his kit circa 2002. the two-seamer sinks hard, which surely explains why the cardinals like him. ponson also throws a slider, and he appears to have one other breaking pitch -- or maybe he simply threw some very rounded-off sliders on may 11. my guess is that it's a cutter, tossed in now and again to keep hitters guessing. also of note, ponson has an unusual hitch in his delivery, dropping his pitching arm straight down at his side and holding it motionless as he begins his stride toward the plate. it's only a split-second freeze, just enough to give the delivery a bit of stutter-stepitude -- as if his foot stays on the clutch an extra half-beat. the gears slip, then engage.

he came into last may 11 with a 4-1 record and 5.50 era. ponson missed half of spring training last year for some reason, only made 3 starts covering 14 innings, and threw 110 pitches in his season-opening start. in his next game tampa bay pounded him -- 3 inn, 9 earned -- but ponson won his next time out and then pitched a complete-game 5-hitter against the blue jays on april 24. he added another strong outing on may 6, yielding 1 earned on 5 hits in 8 innings against the royals.

the may 11 game was a midweek afternoon game, the last of a 12-game homestand and the rubber game of a 3-game set with minnesota. both teams were off to a very good starts -- baltimore unexpectedly stood 1st in the east with a 21-11 record, and the twins (3-time defending champs in the al cent'l) were 20-12, 3.5 back of the surprising chisox. ponson's mound opponent, santana, had a 5-1 record / 2.88 era -- stiff competition. and stiffer yet because ponson had to compete without his full repertoire of pitches: the slider was not biting on this particular afternoon. sid did snap off one in the top of the 1st, to torii hunter, with runners on the corners and two out, and hunter swung through the pitch to fall into an 0-2 hole. but ponson bounced a two-seamer off the dirt on the next pitch, and it skidded past his catcher (geronimo gil) to bring home the game's 1st run. that problem, too, would plague ponson all afternoon: of his 95 pitches, 10 bounced in the dirt.

after running the count to 3-2 on hunter, ponson went back to the slider and hung it inside, miles from gil's target on the outer half; hunter scorched it to 3d, but mel mora backhanded the ball on one hop and threw him out to save a run. ponson didn't throw another slider until the 3d inning and hung that one too, but the batter (ss juan castro, hitting 9th) grounded it harmlessly to short. the next two guys singled, both on fastballs; with a 1-2 count on joe mauer ponson went back to the slider, inner half -- mauer smoked it to right field for a single. jay gibbons air-mailed the throw home, and ponson failed to back up the play, which allowed mauer and the other baserunner to advance; instead of 1st and 2d with one out, he now faced 2d and 3d. the mistake proved costly: the next batter hit a deep line drive to right, scoring the man from third and moving mauer up from second; and the guy after that lined one off ponson's left heel and reached (scoring mauer) when sid's ill-advised throw to 1st sailed down the right-field line. a dozen batters into the game, ponson had a) thrown a wild pitch, b) blown a standard defensive assignment, and c) committed an error. his slider was fat, his two-seamer shaky, and he trailed 4-2 to the reigning american league cy young award winner. not looking good.

he hung another slider to open the 4th but got away with it; thereafter he ditched the pitch save for one instance, a 2-1 pitch to justin morneau leading off the 6th (result: ground out). ponson threw almost nothing but fastballs the rest of the way, and since he continued to lack command over the two-seamer he basically lived and died with his most basic pitch, the four-seamer. and damned if he didn't get away with it. between the 4th and the 7th innings, ponson faced the minimum 12 batters, walking one and retiring the other 11 (including one on a double play); of the 11 outs he recorded, 8 came on his four-seam fastball.

the graphics on the orioles' broadcast did not include pitch velocity, so i can't tell you how hard he was throwing. i can say, however, that the twins were getting some pretty good cuts. two-thirds of their swings (24 of 36) resulted in balls in play; ponson induced only 2 swinging strikes and 10 foul balls in his eight innings of work. he also pitched from behind in the count most of the day; of the last 18 hitters he faced, only two fell behind 0-1, and one of those did so by fouling off an 0-0 bunt. the twins hit the ball on the nose a number of times but were foiled by bad luck and/or good defense. maybe half a dozen well-hit balls went right to oriole defenders, and the three infielders (mora tejada and roberts) each took away at least one hit with good work afield.

which is to say, ponson's outing was consistent with any number of performances turned in by mulder, morris, and suppan in 2005. he kept the ball down, in the park, and in the general vicinity of the strike zone, then let his teammates do the rest -- not empty accomplishments, given that his two bread-n-butter pitches took the day off. he certainly pitched no worse than santana, who struck out 8 in 6 innings but got tagged for 9 hits, 4 of 'em doubles. the orioles evened the score at 4-4 in the fifth inning, and in the 8th they broke through against matt gurrier and jc romero for 3 runs. bj ryan came on to close out the game, and the orioles -- and ponson -- had a 7-4 victory. the win put baltimore 11 games over .500, a game and a half up on the red sox. ponson improved to 5-1 and his era dropped to 4.93. in 5 starts since the drubbing at tampa ponson had gone 4-0 with a 2.92 era and a 1.27 whip.

in the early innings, ponson seemed to be setting guys up for the slider and throwing it as an out-pitch --- before he lost trust in it for the day. i'll fish around and try to find a game when ponson's slider was on; that, in combination with the two-seamer, seems to hold the key to his effectiveness.