Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Hope's Turn

This offseason, Sidney Ponson probably hoped that his career would be reborn in Florida. He just imagined it would happen in March, not May.

To some extent he was right. Twins fans will recall that nobody argued much about Ponson joining the Twins staff at the end of spring training. April has been a different story. Maybe May will be yet another?

Last night's final results could indicate that it will be. In last night’s 9-1 Twins laugher, Ponson pitched seven innings, and allowed just one run and seven base runners. He also struck out five Devil Rays, exactly when it was being speculated that he was pitching for his job.

The performance itself wasn’t quite so pretty. If Ponson felt extra pressure, it was certainly lessened by the 2-0 lead the Twins had before he threw a single pitch, and the 6-1 lead before he returned to the mound.

Early, it seemed like the Twins might need those runs, because Ponson was pretty lucky those first couple of innings. He needed to be. He hit the second batter he faced, walked the third batter, and gave up a home run ball to the fourth, which fortunately drifted just foul. He escaped the inning with no damage because the Rays were caught stealing early in the inning and finished the inning on a checked swing.

The second inning started even worse. His second pitch was deposited in the left-center field bleachers. The pitch after that was singled to right field. His next pitch saved him, as it led to a double play. But even the final out was a fly ball to the warning track in right field. The Rays had scored only one run, but it was less than a dominating performance.

And so was the third inning. Ponson was victimized by a mistake by Nick Punto and a terrible call by a second base umpire who was late in getting in position for a call at third base. But he escaped the inning because of two warning track fly balls (both of which were hit with two men on base). Maybe worse, he spent most of the inning falling behind hitters in the count.

The fourth inning? He induced some ground balls, but it also became clear that the Devil Rays were taking the first pitch every time, which is never a good sign. Two of the outs were off-speed pitches that were left high in the zone but were popped up and grounded out. His next opponent will be looking for those.

The fifth inning started with two hard-hit line drives, one of which was directly at Jason Bartlett. Then a hard hit ball to Torii Hunter in center field. And then a 3-0 count to Carl Crawford, before fighting back with some pitches that caught enough corner to strike out Crawford looking.

The last two innings were the highlight of the night. He retired all six batters, including the middle of the Devil Rays order. The sixth inning included another warning track fly ball and a line drive to Hunter, but it also included two strikeouts on breaking balls.

So was a corner turned? Maybe, but it didn’t look like it for the first five innings. And Ponson was also aided by the Rays approach, since they clearly didn’t expect him to attack the zone. One gets the sense that maybe Ponson has reached the point in his career where he needs to become a fly ball pitcher doing a Silva-esque dance each inning to escape trouble, which isn’t especially comforting.

But ultimately, it’s the results that really matter. Maybe Ponson turned a corner in those last few innings. Or maybe he has discovered enough tricks to keep runs off the board. Or maybe this will give him enough confidence to improve even more. Today, hope should get its turn. Five days from now against Boston, we’ll see if it gets another.

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