FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In the top of the sixth inning here yesterday, John Oates pulled out his stopwatch. This was going to be the most critical part of the day for the Orioles manager.
Bob Milacki appeared to be on the verge of skipping the unofficial five-inning barrier placed on the starters in their fourth appearance. But it turned out to be only a ploy.
Oates had no intention of letting Milacki finish the sixth inning. What he wanted to find out was how long it would take left-hander Dennis Rasmussen to get loose.
So, pitching coach Dick Bosman was dispatched to the bullpen with simple instructions. Oates told him, "When Milacki starts throwing, get him [Rasmussen] up and let me know when he's ready."
After Milacki gave up a pop-fly single, Rasmussen was put into the game.
"It took him three minutes and 27 seconds to get ready," said Oates, who seemed pleased by the experiment. That's how it is when your team is 11-3, even if it is only the exhibition season.
"Was that fast enough?" Rasmussen wanted to know, when he was told Oates had the clock on him.
As far as Oates was concerned, it was near perfect. "That told me two hitters was all the time he needs," Oates said. "I figure I can kill a minute, and my catcher can kill a minute if necessary."
From the first day of spring training, Oates has maintained Rasmussen was in camp to be tested as a starter. He is signed to a contract with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, but has been on Oates' long list of potential starters since the ink was dry on the contract.
It has been only in recent days that Oates, and Rasmussen, have begun to think about other alternatives. "It is new to me," Rasmussen said of pitching in relief, "but if that's the only way I can make the club, that's OK with me."
The way the Orioles starters have operated in this camp to date defies not only description, but also belief. The combined ERA of those who have actually started the 14 games is down to an unbelievable 0.80.
Those kinds of numbers are tough to ignore. Especially if you're on the outside, trying to crack a five-man rotation.
"One thing I don't see is a left-hander who can pitch long relief and step in as a starter if someone goes down," Rasmussen said. At 33, he is enough of a veteran to understand situations.
His program is not unlike the one Mike Flanagan went through a year ago. Flanagan went all the way through spring training as a potential starter, only to end up in the bullpen with a new role that added longevity to his career.
It's not that Rasmussen is putting himself into the same category, just that he realizes the possibilities. Flanagan and Jim Poole, the other left-hander in the bullpen, are not strictly one-batter types who come in to get out a left-handed hitter and then take a hike.
But neither are they geared to go more than two innings at a time. And, if the manager had his preference, he'd rather limit them to less than that whenever possible.
Rasmussen knows the advantage of being left-handed in the Orioles' bullpen, which contains some quality right-handers, topped by ace closer Gregg Olson. That influences managers to keep their left-handed hitters in the game, especially in the late innings that belong to Olson.
It was a tactic that worked to Flanagan's benefit last year. The only problem was that the Orioles did not have enough late-inning leads to make the strategy work.
"I've been around long enough that I think I know what it takes to get ready," said Rasmussen, who approached Oates about relief possibilities a week ago.
In yesterday's game, Rasmussen allowed one hit in three innings, with one of his two walks setting up the only run he allowed. "I shouldn't have given up a run because I had Chili Davis [who singled in the seventh] struck out twice," said Rasmussen.
"But if that's a regular-season game, I finish it out. They kept all of their left-handed hitters on the bench until Todd [Frohwirth] cameinto the game."
There was nothing conclusive about Rasmussen's performance yesterday. But neither was there anything that indicated he couldn't work out of the bullpen if necessary.
With only two weeks left in the exhibition season, and Poole having only one inning of work so far, Oates is starting to explore his options.
Rasmussen has pitched to a 2.45 earned run average in four games (11 innings). A year ago he would've been a front-runner for a starting job. Right now, however, he has starters stacked up ahead of him.
If the bullpen is a ticket to a big-league job, then Rasmussen is ready to have it punched. In the meantime, Oates probably will pull out his stopwatch a few more times before the exhibition season is completed.
"So far we've only used two true relievers," said Oates. "We used Dennis yesterday and Jim Lewis earlier. Other than that, they've been treated just like starters.
"They've been told when they would go in, they had all the time they wanted to get ready, and they started an inning off fresh.
"As the starters stretch out, some of the work will be cut back and we'll have to drop somebody from a starting role."
In all likelihood, that process got under way yesterday.