ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- At times his pitching style is reminiscent of Don Stanhouse, an Oriole from another era who threw strikes only when absolutely necessary.
But most of the time Rick Sutcliffe gives the impression of being a master craftsman.
And last night the 35-year-old righthander was a little of both as the Orioles won their sixth exhibition game in a row, 1-0 over the Philadelphia Phillies in 10 innings. Though still unhappy with his control, Sutcliffe has done just about everything expected of him after he was signed as a free agent last December.
"There were no guarantees," Sutcliffe said after blanking the Phillies on one hit over the first four innings. "I needed to come down here and pitch my way into the rotation."
Under circumstances of the last two years, that would have required little more than a healthy arm. But so far, cracking the Orioles' starting rotation has been the toughest assignment of the spring.
There's no room at the top.
"We're all in it together," said Sutcliffe, "trying to keep this thing going."
"This thing" is the best exhibition start the Orioles have had since the 1969 team won 17 of its first 20. Their 10-3 record is the best in the American League.
Strangely enough, despite 95 losses a year ago, Sutcliffe professes not to be overly surprised by the Orioles' performance so far. "All I know is what Johnny [Oates] told me last winter," said Sutcliffe.
"He told me this team catches the ball, scores runs and has an outstanding bullpen. All he was concerned about was the starting pitching.
"He told me he wanted not one, but two starting pitchers -- and that was right after the Orioles made the trade for Storm [Davis]. Johnny was comfortable with [Ben] McDonald, [Mike] Mussina and [Bob] Milacki -- he didn't see any chance of moving them.
"What you're seeing right now is the potential you've been writing about getting a chance to play -- and it's playing well. Storm threw the ball great again tonight [three innings, one hit, four strikeouts]. He's going to be a huge asset for this club.
"This is a nice situation to be in," said Sutcliffe. "Johnny's got some decisions to make. I've been on some clubs, especially the Cubs the last few years, where it seemed like you were just looking for one good outing for somebody to make the team.
"Here, it's almost like you're looking for one bad outing [to eliminate someone]," said Sutcliffe. "Dennis [Rasmussen] has thrown the ball real well and [Arthur] Rhodes has been impressive."
But, from the beginning, it has been obvious that Oates wanted Sutcliffe to be the stabilizer. So far he's done that and more.
"What you're seeing is how he does it," said Oates. "It isn't always real pretty, but he knows how to pitch. He knows how to get people out."
Last night's game was a good test for Sutcliffe, because it was against a team that is familiar with him. "I talked to a couple of guys that know me -- [Len] Dykstra and Vuck [coach John Vuckovich] and they both said my velocity was good."
Sutcliffe has the reputation of being a situational pitcher, who won't give in to a hitter, almost regardless of the circumstances. To that extent he agrees with the comparison to Stanhouse, the ex-reliever who drove managers to distraction by constanting pitching with a full count.
But, Sutcliffe insists the comparison ends there. "After you've seen me awhile, you'll change your mind," he said. "I'm really not like that. That guy [Stanhouse] used to put me to sleep -- remember he came to us [the Dodgers] after he left the Orioles [following the 1979 season]. I don't pitch like this normally.
"The pitches I'm missing with right now, are pitches I'll be throwing for strikes," promised Sutcliffe, who broke out his changeup for the first time last night.
"In these exhibition games, when you're pitching two or three innings, you approach it like a short reliever," he said. "There's nothing to hold back. But as you start to stretch it out, the other pitches come into play.
"I figure I've got three more starts down here," said Sutcliffe. "I've still got some mechanical things to work out, but other than that everything is fine."
Pitching behind Sutcliffe for the third time, Davis was equally impressive. He got through his only threatening situation, courtesy of a sparkling defensive play by third baseman Leo Gomez in the sixth inning. In the process, he displayed a sharp breaking pitch and a lively fastball.
Davis is tentatively penciled in for the No. 5 slot in the starting rotation, behind the 3 M's (Milacki, McDonald and Mussina) and Sutcliffe -- with Rasmussen, Jose Mesa and Rhodes also making their presence felt.
Of the eight only Rasmussen has allowed more than one earned run.
As has been the case in recent years, pitching is the talk of the Orioles' training camp. For a change that talk is of a more positive nature than in the past, when the key word was "if."