FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Call it the clubhouse turn, if you like. The Orioles are two weeks away from Baltimore, and they are much closer to being a complete ballclub than anyone could have expected when the team arrived in Florida nearly a month ago.
Manager John Oates has put much of the emphasis on his starting rotation, and with good reason. The Orioles floundered in the early innings and flopped into sixth place last year, leaving a spring of great expectations in their wake. The club set out this past winter to avert another pitching catastrophe, and the early indications have been promising.
Through the first 10 Grapefruit League games, Orioles starters gave up three earned runs in 33 innings of work. That works out to a 0.82 ERA, which has to be encouraging after a 1991 season in which the Orioles' rotation had the highest combined ERA (5.29) in the major leagues.
Ten exhibition games do not make a season, but they do make a case for the Orioles' attempt to find a new mix of youth and experience. The rotation bears no resemblance to the one that opened the 1991 season, which has to be encouraging in itself. The only holdover is right-hander Jose Mesa, who is pitching well this spring, but doesn't figure to make the starting five unless Storm Davis and Dennis Rasmussen fall out of consideration.
The fifth spot is the only one in doubt. Davis has been hobbled by a sore Achilles' tendon, but he still is scheduled to start tomorrow night's exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Rasmussen is 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in three appearances, so he is beginning to look like a viable alternative if Davis isn't ready.
It is early, but Oates has good reason to be excited. Just look at the individual performances:
* Right-hander Ben McDonald, who started each of the past two seasons on the disabled list, has opened spring training with three strong starts. He has given up one earned run and five hits in nine innings.
* Mike Mussina pitched four more scoreless innings last night to run his string to nine. He has faced 29 batters and allowed just a pair of walks.
* Bob Milacki, who was the club's most consistent starter last year, has worked 10 innings (in three games) and given up a run on seven hits.
* Rick Sutcliffe, whose comeback from two years of shoulder problems figures to be a key to the Orioles' attempt to become a contender in the American League East, has given up a run on seven hits in five innings in his first two games. He has allowed 10 base runners, but he didn't figure to overpower anyone in his early appearances.
"I've been very pleased with the pitching overall," Oates said yesterday. "I'm really excited about the results, but what's more exciting is what I've seen."
He is particularly pleased with the youthful core of the club's rotation -- Mussina, McDonald and Milacki -- and a couple of other young arms who could force his hand if they continue to pitch well. Mesa has thrown nine scoreless innings in his first three Grapefruit League appearances. Rookie Arthur Rhodes has given up one run on four hits in five innings of work.
"I don't care if it's early," Oates said. "I'm pleased with the pitching staff as a whole, but I've been very excited about those five guys. I'd be lying if I said I expected them to pitch that well, but if any one of them can throw this well over a whole season, he's going to have a very good year."
This is just what the manager ordered to cure those nagging doubts that have followed the club around all winter. The offensive lineup figured to be better, with Glenn Davis apparently healthy again and Cal Ripken hoping to build on last year's Most Valuable Player performance. The bullpen was not a problem. The rotation is going to make or break this season, and it has made significant progress in the past few weeks.
Oates hasn't named an Opening Day starter, but it is becoming more and more clear that it will be Sutcliffe. The way the rotation is laid out, Sutcliffe will pitch four innings tomorrow night and likely come back on three days' rest to throw again on Sunday. If the starters begin working on four days' rest after that, Sutcliffe's turn would fall on April 6, the date of the regular-season opener.
There are other, perhaps more pressing, questions to be answered during the next couple of weeks, but they are the same roster issues that have commanded the manager's
attention from the first day of workouts. He must decide between backup catchers Rick Dempsey and Jeff Tackett, he needs to choose between utility infield candidates Juan Bell and Mark McLemore and he needs to decide whether left fielder Luis Mercedes is ready to make the jump into a major-league leadoff role.