ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For a team desperately seeking solid starting pitching, the first weekend of the exhibition season featured some positive developments for the Orioles.
Right-hander Bob Milacki pitched three perfect innings Friday, Ben McDonald retired all six batters he faced Saturday and Mike Mussina added two perfect innings in the Orioles' 3-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday at Al Lang Stadium.
That's seven consecutive perfect innings for most of the Orioles' projected starting rotation, with veteran Rick Sutcliffe poised for his spring-training debut against the Chicago White Sox this afternoon.
"We're going to have some ups and downs as we go along," pitching coach Dick Bosman said. "But it's gratifying to see them go out and be aggressive and throw strikes."
Of course, the Orioles proved last year that their starters could go two or three innings, but this is spring, and good news is welcomed. The club has won its first three exhibition games for the first time since 1985, and the pitching -- with a couple of minor exceptions -- has been superb.
"That's exciting, seven perfect innings," manager John Oates said. "You certainly don't expect that all year long, but it's still seven perfect innings. It's a good sign. Those three guys, we need them to throw well, but the main thing is to stay healthy and take their regular turns."
Mussina has done that since he arrived in the major leagues on July 30. He was the club's most efficient pitcher down the stretch (2.87 ERA), and picked up where he left off when he took the mound in the Orioles' exhibition home opener.
Relying largely on his fastball and changeup, he struck out three of the six batters he faced and took advantage of a couple of solid defensive plays to keep the perfect-innings streak alive.
"I thought I did all right," Mussina said. "I got the fastball over, and my changeup was good. My curveball doesn't usually come around until May, so I used the change in some curveball situations.
"Cal [Ripken] made a couple of good plays, and [Leo] Gomez made a great play at third. I hope that's the way it goes for the next 250 innings or so."
He is not the only one. The starting rotation was a major weakness in 1991, failing in the early innings in one of every four games. No starter remains from the four-man rotation that opened last season, so the club hopes things will be different this year.
Mussina can play a major role in that turnaround if he continues to pitch the way he did in August and September.
"I have confidence in what I can do, but it depends on how things go," he said. "I had a great two months last year. I don't know if I've ever thrown the baseball that well for two months. If I can keep throwing like that, I'll get a lot more out of baseball than I ever expected."
The club can only hope he succeeds where McDonald failed a year ago. McDonald had an outstanding half-season after he moved into the starting rotation in 1990, but he suffered through an injury-riddled 1991 season that set him back to square one this spring.
He pushed himself too hard too soon in each of the past two springs and started those seasons on the disabled list. Perhaps Mussina has learned something from McDonald's mistakes. When Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman asked him if he wanted to pitch a third inning yesterday, he declined.
"Yeah, they asked me if I wanted to go another inning," he said. "I'm going to throw a lot of innings this year, so there was no reason to muscle up a third inning today."
No reason, since he'll take the mound five or six more times before the opener. He delivered a positive performance and got out of there, leaving Sutcliffe with three tough acts to follow.
Sutcliffe is coming off a strong late-season performance in 1991, but he has to overcome doubts about his durability after two years of shoulder problems.
"He looks fine. He looks healthy," Bosman said. "He's a veteran guy who's putting all the pieces of the puzzle together. He knows he doesn't have to rush things, but he wants to go out and establish himself early."
If it looks as if Oates and Bosman are trying to downplay Sutcliffe's appearance today, it's because he isn't likely to push himself. He doesn't have to prove that he can pitch, just that he will be able to.
"I've already seen Rick once [in an intrasquad game]," Oates said. "He's healthy. He popped the ball well. The most exciting thing is that he's healthy. His name hasn't come up on the treatment sheet one day all spring. Either he's healthy, or he has all of us fooled."
Mussina might be young, but he knows what a healthy Rick Sutcliffe could mean to the Orioles' chances in the American League East this year.
"If he's in the rotation, that will be a benefit to me and Ben and Milacki," said Mussina, 23. "It's going to be a great help to everybody. Rick is not a me-me kind of guy. He pumps everybody up. He's been here two weeks, and he's already established himself as the veteran, experienced guy who's helping everybody out."
Right-hander Storm Davis will follow Sutcliffe to the mound, making his first appearance as an Oriole since 1986. He is projected as the No. 5 starter, but his spring performance likely will determine whether he earns that role or ends up in long relief.
The club has gotten scoreless performances from Dennis Rasmussen and Jose Mesa, both of whom hope to move into the rotation if Davis cannot hold onto the No. 5 job.