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No. 5 starter: Ponson

Thursday, March 23, 2006

JUPITER, Fla. -- So far, Sidney Ponson's comeback is a big success.

The right-hander won a three-man battle for the St. Louis Cardinals' fifth starting spot on Wednesday when prospect Anthony Reyes was optioned to Class AAA Memphis and Adam Wainwright was shifted to the bullpen.

"He did everything that he needed to do throughout the course of the spring," Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "He did everything that he needed to do to earn the spot."

Ponson signed a $1 million contract with the Cardinals after being released by the Baltimore Orioles last September because of alcohol-related problems. He was 7-11 with a 6.21 ERA last year.

Ponson's off-the-field troubles in Maryland ended this week when prosecutors said they had dropped a false statement charge against him.

Ponson was convicted in December of driving while impaired and sentenced to five days in jail. His arrest in August marked his third drunk driving offense. He also spent 11 days in jail in his native Aruba after fighting on a beach.

The pitcher had been charged with knowingly making a false statement on a Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration application, but prosecutors said they could not prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ponson won 17 games in 2003, when he played for the Orioles and Giants. He's 1-1 with a 3.60 ERA this spring in four games, three of them starts.

"He's gotten better every time, that's how I've been describing it," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He's got a history of durability and he's done as much in this camp as he could. It's all ahead of him, though."

The Cardinals also optioned left-handers Tyler Johnson and Carmen Cali and catcher Michael Hernandez to their minor league camp.

Wainwright, 24, said he always felt it was Ponson's job to lose. Wainwright has been one of the team's top pitching prospects since he was acquired from the Braves in 2003 along with Jason Marquis in exchange for J.D. Drew.

"In the back of my mind, I'm grinding the entire time competing for the fifth spot knowing that Sidney is going to have every opportunity to make the team," Wainwright said. "Sidney has experience on his side and he's a great pitcher.

"Getting moved to the bullpen is a chance for me to get better and show I can pitch in any situation."

La Russa insisted that Ponson had to prove himself.

"To start off, I didn't know what we had with him," the manager said. "They all started even, and it's been a real competition."

La Russa said Reyes, 24, needed to work on pitch selection and concentrate less on power.

"The thing about Anthony is he can be a premier pitcher because he's got premier stuff," La Russa said. "He just needs to keep adding looks to the hitter."

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