ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the Orioles, the good news yesterday was that Cal Ripken picked up where he had left off last year.
The better news is that the pitching staff didn't.
In an impressive debut to a 30-game exhibition schedule, the Orioles did a lot of things right to beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 3-1, before a crowd of 4,207 at Al Lang Stadium.
The game was hardly reminiscent of last year's Orioles, when they fell behind by three or more runs before the fourth inning in 25 percent of their games. The team managed only four hits, but five pitchers combined for a six-hitter to ensure the victory.
Bob Milacki, who struggled through spring training a year ago, was so impressive that he pitched an inning longer than scheduled. He retired nine straight hitters.
He was followed by Dennis Rasmussen, Anthony Telford, Mike Oquist and Jim Lewis. Rasmussen and Telford worked two innings apiece, and Oquist and Lewis pitched one each.
"I felt good," said Milacki, who appeared satisfied but not overly pleased with his performance. "I used all my pitches, but I wasn't hitting my spots consistently.
"They [the Cardinals] were aggressive, and that helped me out. I felt I could have gone longer."
Milacki was scheduled to throw two innings or 30 pitches, whichever came first. However, his first two innings were so easy, manager John Oates let him pitch the third. And Oates graded Milacki's performance a lot higher than the pitcher did.
"It was a good outing for him," said Oates, mindful that Milacki's misfortunes last spring cost him a spot on the Opening Day roster. "That's Milacki's kind of game. Except for rushing himself for a couple of pitches, I thought he threw the ball very well. He got a little out of sync, but then straightened himself out."
Ripken had two hits in three at-bats and drove in the two runs that proved decisive with a bases-loaded single in the fifth inning. The Orioles did their scoring in that inning against left-hander Juan Agosto.
Mark Smith, last year's No. 1 draft choice who is in camp for a courtesy look, drove in the first run with a double. Leo Gomez, who opened the inning with a walk, scored as Smith's drive went over the head of Pedro Guerrero, making his debut as the Cardinals left fielder.
After Mike Devereaux walked and Joe Orsulak was hit by a pitch, Ripken rapped a single to left to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead.
Agosto was the only one of five St. Louis pitchers that the Orioles were able to handle. Bob Tewksbury allowed only one hit in the first three innings, and Cris Carpenter, Todd Worrell and Lee Smith shut down the Orioles over the last four innings.
"I liked what I saw," said Oates. "Like I said the other day, getting in shape for the season is our top priority, but it's also important to win games. Anything we do positive down here is going to be a plus to take into the season."
Perhaps the most impressive thing for Oates and the Orioles was that four of the pitchers yesterday are not among the 10 leading candidates to make the staff. Rasmussen is a non-roster invitee to camp, Telford appears headed for Rochester, Oquist is only a year out of Double-A, and Lewis is trying to make an impression after being obtained from the San Diego Padres in the trade for Craig Worthington.
"Rasmussen showed more velocity than I had been led to believe," said Oates. "I hadn't seen him pitch since 1983. If he doesn't make our club, he looks like a pretty good insurance policy [at Rochester].
"Telford's first inning was super, then he got behind in his second inning [the seventh, when the Cardinals got their lone run]," said Oates. "He didn't want to walk anybody and ended up giving up a couple of hits."
Even the only negative mark of the day turned up something positive. An error by Juan Bell, who replaced Ripken at shortstop in the fifth inning, allowed Chuck Carr to get on base to open the bottom of the eighth inning, and he promptly stole second.
A walk to Tim Jones put runners on first and second with nobody out. But Oquist worked a nifty pickoff play with second baseman Mark McLemore, then retired the next two hitters.
"[Oquist] showed a lot of composure," said Oates. "Actually, he accidentally answered the pickoff sign on the pitch before -- then came back and made the play anyhow."
In the ninth inning, Lewis induced Tracy Woodson to hit into a double play that effectively ended any chances the Cardinals had of making a comeback. "He showed me about what I expected," said Oates, who has been impressed with Lewis in early training camp.
For openers, there was a lot for Oates to like yesterday. Especially the result, which generally is considered insignificant at this stage of the year.
After losing 180 games the past two seasons, however, the Orioles look at any win as important.