HAINES CITY, Fla. -- With exactly two weeks remaining in spring training, the Baltimore Orioles' starting pitching rotation is beginning to take form.
Where Bob Milacki fits is slightly more unclear.
The big right-hander is trying to bounce back from an off season and a strained shoulder, but, unlike Jeff Ballard, who is a virtual cinch to be in the rotation, Milacki is fighting to regain his spot.
Pitching coach Al Jackson said yesterday that Ben McDonald, Dave Johnson and Ballard are penciled in to be three of the four starters in the first two weeks of the regular season, which include three scheduled days off.
The fourth man is anybody's guess, with Milacki, Jeff Robinson, Jose Mesa and veteran Mike Flanagan, who has thrown as well as anybody in Florida, in the hunt.
"In the next couple of weeks, the water will find its own level," said Jackson. "I'm not overly alarmed. I'll take my chances with the candidates."
Milacki, the Orioles' Opening Day starter last year in Kansas City, Mo., had one victory in the last 17 weeks of the season. He was 5-8 overall with a 4.46 ERA.
The club seems content that Milacki is healthy again and is adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward his and the competition's final spring-training outings.
Yesterday, Milacki pitched five so-so innings in a 7-4 loss to the Kansas City Royals at the Baseball City Complex. He was victimized by two errors and recorded his first six strikeouts in "A" games, but also had his negative times.
"He had some good moments and also some shaky ones," said manager Frank Robinson.
"He was better, more aggressive at times" said Jackson. "But he got behind some people he shouldn't have."
Milacki has given up 15 runs and 17 hits in his past 12 innings after a scoreless three innings in his first outing. He probably needs a strong finish.
"He's a little behind where I think he should be," said Jackson. "But he's had trouble with one bad inning. We're hoping he's going in the right direction."
Milacki said he needs to be more consistent in the strike zone but said he "had pretty good command and made some pitches I had to in certain situations."
Kevin Seitzer homered against him in the first inning, but errors by Randy Milligan and Craig Worthington aided the Royals immensely during Milacki's stint.
"Basically, I've been working on some mechanical things the last few starts," he said. "The windup and the stretch category are particular things.
"I think I'm a lot closer than I was two or three weeks ago. I threw well today, more relaxed and fluid. And my velocity is improving every time I go out."
All the Orioles pitchers were unhappy with a pitching rubber that was "all chewed up," according to Milacki, and a relatively flat mound.
His belief is that if he pitches well the last few starts, "I could be in" the rotation. "At least I hope I am."
There is no doubt he has some pop back in his arm and he was happy with his sliders and changeups yesterday, but refrained from too many curveballs.
"When you have four pitches, it's good to keep one up your sleeve," said Jackson.
The Orioles took a 4-1 lead against Kevin Appier, but Kansas City overhauled that in the seventh inning with Seitzer and Jeff Conine delivering run-scoring singles.
Two more unearned runs by the opposition lifted the team's total to 24 in 17 games this spring.