Milacki will face Cardinals Friday, but April 6 up in air

OPEN QUESTION

March 02, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Right-hander Bob Milacki is scheduled to start for the Orioles in the opening game of the exhibition season, but that does not necessarily mean he'll take the mound for the first regular-season game at the new ballpark.

"I just felt he was ready to go," manager John Oates said. "The way things are right now, I think it's best just to use them on their best day throwing."

He could do worse for an Opening Day starter. Milacki was the winningest pitcher on the team last year, even if he did win only 10 games. He also was the most consistent, though Mike Mussina came on strong in the second half of the season.

The pitcher who starts the exhibition opener generally is projected as the Opening Day starter, but Oates said no such conclusion can be drawn this year.

"We don't have a guy who has pitched here six or seven years," Oates said. "We don't have a Roger Clemens or a Dwight Gooden who is an obvious choice. It seems like we have a team and not a bunch of individuals."

Milacki will face the St. Louis Cardinals in Friday's exhibition opener at Al Lang Stadium. He'll throw two innings before giving way to Dennis Rasmussen and Anthony Telford.

Ben McDonald will start Saturday's game against the Kansas City Royals, Mike Mussina will go Sunday against the Toronto Blue Jays and Rick Sutcliffe will start against the Chicago White Sox on Monday.

Sutcliffe and fellow newcomer Storm Davis are being held back to the fourth game to give them extra time to work into shape.

Ten starters have been scheduled to work in the first four games. The work schedule for the relievers will be less structured, but carefully planned.

"We just had to pick an order, and Milacki won 10 games for us and has been throwing all winter," Oates said. "He's as good a choice as anybody."

Milacki isn't assuming anything, except that he'll take the mound Friday. He was the Opening Day starter in 1990 and is the senior member of the rotation in terms of time with the club, but he had to fight back from a disappointing 1990 season just to put up passable numbers last year.

"If I'm the Opening Day starter, that's fine," Milacki said. "It would be an honor. But if I make 30 or more starts and pitch 200 or more innings and win 15 or more games, that's what will really make me happy."

Oates said it might be mid-March before he designates a starter for Opening Day. He said that he doesn't like to change his mind and that a lot can happen during the exhibition season.

"As far as I'm concerned, it would be impossible right now to predict who it will be," he said. "But, by the 15th of March, I think anybody would be able to narrow it down to one or two guys."

Oates' predecessor, Frank Robinson, had no such problem with making predictions -- or changing his mind. He chose right-hander Ben McDonald as last year's Opening Day starter well before the Orioles opened full-squad workouts.

McDonald did not make that start. He opened the season on the disabled list for the second year in a row. Robinson then went to Dave Johnson, because he was the winningest Orioles pitcher of 1990.Johnson didn't start either. Robinson changed his mind and pitched Jeff Ballard in the final Orioles opener at Memorial Stadium.

This year's Opening Day assignment figures to go to either Milacki or Sutcliffe -- the former based on last year's performance or the latter, on his career accomplishments.

Sutcliffe is a former Cy Young Award winner who has been brought in to anchor the youthful rotation, so it would not be a surprise if he christened the new stadium, but he isn't campaigning for the honor.

"I just want to be one of the first five guys," he said. "They're all important, and it's important for this team to get out of the gate well. It's particularly important because of all the young players on the team."

Opening Day is a long way off -- April 6 -- and Sutcliffe has been jTC around long enough to know that a lot can happen during an exhibition season.

"We've all got a lot to prove," he said. "I don't think anybody has anything locked up. None of us were Cy Young Award winners last year. Right now, a foundation has to be laid."

That's why McDonald might be the longest shot of the bunch. He still might be the most promising pitcher in the organization -- or in the game, for that matter -- but he has pushed himself too hard each of the past two years.

The Orioles have much more to worry about than just the ceremonial aspects of the pitching alignment. The Opening Day start is a significant honor, but the club needs at least four solid starters to be competitive in the American League East.

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