FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Bob Milacki knows that "pretty good" no longer is enough. He's not the only one on the Orioles' pitching staff who falls into that category, but he might be the most hard pressed.
After one effective performance in his first outing, Milacki was unimpressive for the fourth straight time yesterday. And the truth of the matter is, this spring has been neither pretty nor good for the big righthander.
His job in the starting rotation clearly in jeopardy -- the same xTC might be said about his spot on the Opening Day roster.
Nobody is saying anything officially. In fact no official is saying much, period. But, while Milacki struggles to get his mechanics in order, he realizes an assignment to Triple A Rochester, at least for openers, is not out of the question.
"I've been able to keep those things out of my mind," Milacki said after giving up four runs in the first three innings of the Orioles' 10-5 win over Atlanta yesterday. "I'm just concentrating on working as hard as I can and whatever happens, happens.
"If I pitch like I can, then I'll end up in the rotation. If I don't, I could end up in the bullpen -- or Triple A. But I know if I put everything together I can get big-league hitters out."
Neither manager Frank Robinson nor general manager Roland Hemond would comment on the possibility of Milacki making a couple of starts for Rochester to find a groove. "That's why we wait until the last week to make these decisions," said Hemond.
"I keep all thoughts about things like that to myself," said Robinson, who thinks Milacki is fighting a battle with his confidence.
"His biggest problem right now is not enough confidence in his ability," said Robinson. "He's trying to make perfect pitches all the time."
There's nothing wrong with perfect pitches, but the quest for perfection can lead to trouble, as Milacki found out again yesterday.
"I got frustrated with myself," said the righthander, who was the workhorse of the Orioles' staff two years ago.
"I was fighting myself the whole time I was out there, and I kept getting behind. That's when I got hurt."
Physically there is nothing wrong with Milacki, which wasn't the case a year ago when he rushed through a shortened spring training and strained his arm in the process.
"There are some positive things," he said. "I've been throwing more sliders, and today I threw a few good ones. I've been working
on a two-seam [sinking] fastball in an effort to get more ground balls. The changeup is always going to be there because that's my No. 2 pitch."
The biggest adjustment for Milacki has been getting acquainted with a quicker delivery with men on base. "I'm doing a better job holding runners on base," he said. "I'm definitely quicker, and I'm feeling more comfortable with it."
At the moment, however, Milacki's main concern is keeping hitters off base. In 20 innings he has given up 26 hits and walked 10 and his earned run average is an out-of-shape 7.65.
The one redeeming feature about Milacki this spring has been his 14 strikeouts. That isn't an overpowering number, but is sufficient to indicate there's nothing wrong with his arm.
The general consensus is that Milacki isn't putting enough trust in his fastball, which travels in the 87-mph range. When he does go to the fastball, his No. 1 pitch, it's often in situations where hitters are looking for it.
If it's any consolation to Milacki, he is not the only candidate for the starting rotation who is struggling. Only Jeff Ballard has been consistent from the start of exhibition play, with Jose Mesa showing signs of peaking at the right time.
The staff ERA is a whopping 4.82 and counting unearned runs (31), opponents have averaged almost six runs per game against the Orioles, who are 13-14-1 in preseason play. Those numbers can be somewhat deceiving because of erratic conditions in Florida, but they nevertheless are cause for at least mild concern.
Milacki, who could get one more exhibition appearance against the Red Sox in Washington this weekend, represents perhaps the biggest pitching question mark of the spring. He had been projected as the third starter by pitching coach Al Jackson at the start of spring training, but he definitely has slipped.
It now becomes a question of how much time he needs, and how much the Orioles are willing to give Milacki to re-solidify himself in the rotation.