Last Thursday, at major league baseball's trade deadline, the San Francisco Giants emphatically confirmed that they are not lounging division leaders but are finely attuned to the ticking of their biological clock. Despite holding a 12�-game advantage in the National League West on the morning of July 31—the largest margin by which the franchise had been in first place since Sept. 18, 1917, when the Giants played beneath Coogan's Bluff—San Francisco proved an anxious buyer by landing Baltimore Orioles righthander (and potential free agent) Sidney Ponson, the best pitcher among a sparse crowd on the block. "We owed it to everybody," says Giants general manager Brian Sabean. "This is a just reward for how hard our players fought to get us in this position, and it's important to let them know we've got our eyes on the prize. It's an older team, and there's only so many opportunities to crest the wave." � Surf's up in NoCal! By acquiring Ponson, the 26-year-old native of Aruba, minutes before the 4 p.m. deadline, the Giants, who reached Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, added a tropical islander to match 21-year-old Hawaiian rookie righthander Jerome Williams and transformed their rotation from a chronic question mark into a potential playoff exclamation point. Anchored by Jason Schmidt (11-4, 2.44 ERA at week's end), Ponson (14-6, 3.77 with the Orioles) and Williams (5-2, 2.82) while it awaits the return to health of lefthander Kirk Rueter, San Francisco's staff has the horses for another World Series run. "This move is outstanding," says 36-year-old centerfielder Marquis Grissom, part of the graying offensive cast that surrounds the rotation. "It makes us so much more secure. That's what good teams do, they go and get somebody even though they're 12 games up."
Through the exigencies of the seller's market Ponson, a career underachiever distinguished by his standing amongst the Dutch aristocracy (he was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in April), became, after a hot first half, the most prized player available. In desperate need of a starter, San Francisco mulled a swap of rookie righthander Jesse Foppert for Toronto Blue Jays righty Kelvim Escobar, but Sabean ultimately switched his focus to Ponson and obtained him for lefthander Damian Moss and righthander Kurt Ainsworth, plus Class A lefthander Ryan Hannaman. It was a hefty package, with the Orioles exacting the maximum toll from the vulnerable Giants after Rueter was scratched from his scheduled Thursday afternoon start at Wrigley Field with a strained shoulder. (He was placed on the disabled list the next day.)
"We were in an exposed situation with [Rueter] on Thursday," Sabean says, "but I had six different scouts saying Ponson was on the border of electric. We do play in a great pitcher's park, we play great defense, and Ponson's a ground-ball pitcher. You have to be opportunistic. It was a steep price, but we feel he's worth it."
This season Sir Sidney (who was scheduled to make his first start for San Francisco on Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates) enjoyed the finest four months of his frequently maddening (55-59, 4.60 ERA) career. In a nutshell, he has improved because he has been keeping his mid-90s fastball down. From 2000 to '02 Ponson's ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio was 1.27 and he allowed 1.29 home runs per nine innings; in '03, through Sunday, those numbers were 1.61 and .61. That performance not only ensured Ponson a tidy payday this coming winter—he rejected Baltimore's three-year, $15 million offer, saying "it wasn't even a proposal"—but also made him a Giant.
Last season the Giants had the league's most reliable starting five in Schmidt, Rueter and righthanders Russ Ortiz, Livan Hernandez and Ryan Jensen. The quintet made 158 of the club's 162 starts and accounted for almost 70% of its innings pitched. By the middle of April three fifths of that group had vanished, Ortiz and Hernandez having been shipped to the Atlanta Braves and the Montreal Expos, respectively, in off-season trades and Jensen having landed on the DL with a muscle strain in his back. Yet at the trade deadline, manager Felipe Alou's patchwork rotation—which had included 10 contributors, among them rookies Ainsworth, Foppert and Williams, who combined for 39 starts-had generated results similar to last year's. Through July 31 this year's starters had logged 5.9 innings per start with a 4.00 ERA, struck out 6.3 batters and allowed .85 home runs per nine innings; last year's group, at the same point, averaged 6.2 innings with a 3.96 ERA, with 5.7 strikeouts and .84 homers per nine.
The precariousness of the staff, however, caused concern. "We've been winning ball games, so nobody looked into that instability too much," Schmidt says. "The reason it was addressed now is that the playoffs are not a time that you put rookies out there to learn."
Schmidt, 30, knows well how a midseason deal can jolt a career: In July '01 he was a middling Pirates starter when, facing free agency, he was acquired by the Giants at the deadline. "It was like I started my career over again," he says. A power pitcher prone to surrendering fly balls because he uses his heater as his main pitch, Schmidt has thrived in roomy Pac Bell Park, particularly since he signed a four-year, $30 million deal in December 2001. Through Sunday, in 60 starts as a Giant, he was 31-13 with a 3.07 ERA.
Williams, with stuff just as potent as Schmidt's, possesses a fluid motion and a diverse menu. His bread and butter is a low-90s fastball that he can cut or sink; it's the pitch that initially lured scouts to his hometown of Waipahu, a working-class community tucked alongside Pearl Harbor on Oahu. In the 1999 draft San Francisco made Williams the 39th pick—the highest a Hawaiian had ever been selected. When Williams flew to California to sign his contract, it was his first trip to the mainland. Culture shock didn't fully set in, though, until he reported for short-season Class A ball in Keizer, Ore. "I went there with shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops," he says, "and it was nice weather, until seven o'clock, and then I was like, Where's a jacket?"
Equipped with his fastball, a slider and a sharp, high-70s curveball that he'll occasionally dial down to a high-60s floater, Williams precociously climbed the Giants' minor league ladder. This season he's added a modified circle change, gripped with the thumb underneath the ball and thrown, with four fingers, primarily to lefthanders. He also displays a mature mound presence. Says Schmidt, "Some guys miss with a pitch and start cussing themselves out. The majority of guys in the big leagues don't do that, and Jerome doesn't do that."
That maturity has its roots in hardship and loss. A few years ago Williams's father, Glenn, an Army veteran, hurt his neck while working in maintenance at the Pearl Harbor base—an injury that still plagues him—and was forced to retire. In 2001 Jerome's mother, Deborah, a native Hawaiian, died of breast cancer at 46. Jerome wears a necklace of puka shells she gave him.