SARASOTA, Fla. -- Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer has survived the preliminary bouts. He had an early bout with arm stiffness. He had a bout with a blister on his right thumb. He has had about every opportunity to give up his improbable comeback. But he stands at the threshold of the Grapefruit Exhibition season no worse for his whereabouts.
He pitched two innings in an intrasquad game yesterday and gave up two runs on four hits, which is nothing to shout about, but it's nothing to sneeze at either. The next step comes Monday, when he is scheduled to make his 1991 Grapefruit League debut against the Boston RedSox in Bradenton, Fla.
"I'm actually looking forward to this," Palmer said. "I don't know if I'm going to get anybody out, but I want to find out."
Manager Frank Robinson seems to be getting a kick out of it, too. If he has any reservations about Palmer's presence in camp, he has kept them to himself.
"I thought this was a step in the right direction," Robinson said. "He threw the ball over the plate consistently, pitched around the guys he didn't want to face and fielded his position well."
Palmer did give up a towering home run to catcher Chris Hoiles in the second inning, but the 25 mph wind that was blowing out to center probably made a lot of a routine fly ball.
"It was real hard to have good mechanics out there with the wind blowing," Palmer said. "You warm up in one direction [on the practice mounds] and you throw in the other. I would have to think I'll throw better the next time out. I hope I will."
The next time out is the first real test, according to Robinson. The adrenalin levels rise when the hitters are no longer friendly. But Palmer apparently has made steady progress since he arrived here almost two weeks ago.
He threw 38 pitches yesterday, most of them in a two-run second inning that featured two windblown extra-base hits and some hard-hit outs. He faced 11 hitters in all. Here's a quick look at what they did:
* Luis Mercedes: Led off the first inning with a slicing fly ball to right field for the first out of the inning.
* Mike Devereaux: Popped up, but the wind carried the ball into shallow center field, where it dropped in for a double.
* Dwight Evans: Walked on four pitches, three of them high fastballs.
* Randy Milligan: Grounded sharply to third baseman Tim Hulett, who turned an inning-ending double play.
Palmer left the field to a polite ovation from the crowd of about 400 that gathered to witness his first competitive appearance since 1984. He returned to the mound a few minutes later, but his luck was not quite so good the second time around.
* Craig Worthington: Chopped a 2-2 pitch to third base and was thrown out easily.
* Chris Hoiles: Hit a high fly ball that was carried over the fence by the gusting wind that was blowing out to center.
* Ernie Whitt: Sent a sharp line drive back through the box that was stabbed nicely by Palmer, who received another ovation from the crowd.
* Jeff McKnight: Drove a wind-blown double to deep right center.
* Juan Bell: Walked.
* Mercedes: Lined a single up the middle that Palmer got a glove on. McKnight scored from second.
* Devereaux: Grounded out to third to end the inning.
"I honestly think there will be a drastic improvement the next two or three starts," Palmer said. "I wasn't real pleased with my control today, but I think that's to be expected."
Things went no better for several of the other pitchers who took the mound yesterday. The Orioles have held two intrasquad games the past two days and there has been a total of 25 runs scored in them.
If anyone expected Palmer to be discouraged enough to quit after his first live competition, they were disappointed.
"I think that as long as I can go out there with a good attitude and keep progressing, I'd be a fool to quit," he said. "I just want to go the next two or three weeks and find out what I can do and how that fits into major-league baseball in 1991."
Robinson went so far yesterday as to say that if it came down to a tossup between Palmer and one of the club's young pitchers, (( he would go with Palmer, which came as a surprise considering the club's heavy emphasis on youth.