Milacki's opener may be game early Rotation points him to Camden exhibition

March 25, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Bob Milacki has turned into a wallflower. He came. He pitched. He faded into the woodwork.

There was talk three weeks ago that he might be the Orioles' Opening Day starter, but that no longer appears likely. There was general agreement last year that he was the most consistent pitcher on the staff, but much of the attention this spring has been directed at veteran Rick Sutcliffe and No. 1 draft picks Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald.

Milacki is the blue-collar guy. He may not get a lot of recognition, but he always shows up for work on time and puts in a full day.

"He's just a Joe," manager John Oates said, "but that's what I want -- five workhorse Joes."

He showed up yesterday and became the first Orioles pitcher to work six innings this spring, but gave up four runs on seven hits in a 6-5 exhibition loss to the Toronto Blue Jays at Grant Field. If the rotation remains on the same schedule throughout spring training, he will make one more start in Florida and take the mound against the New York Mets in the April 3 preseason run-through at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

That would not be Milacki's first choice, of course. If he pitches on that Friday, he would come back to pitch the second game of the regular season against the Cleveland Indians. The much-coveted Opening Day start would go to newcomer Rick Sutcliffe, who has the highest ERA (4.15) of the club's six prospective starters.

"The way it stacks up, it looks like it will be Sutcliffe," Milacki said. "I figure everyone else has two more starts. You can only juggle so much that final week."

Milacki doesn't have a problem with that, but he would love to have the opportunity to open the new season at the new stadium, especially after the way he closed the old one in October. He was the starter for the final game at Memorial Stadium, a game that the Orioles lost badly to the Detroit Tigers.

"It would mean a lot to me, because I was the closing day pitcher at Memorial Stadium, as much as I'd like to forget that game," he said. "That's why it would be neat to be the Opening Day starter at Camden Yards. But if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. I wish it was me, but if it's not, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it."

Oates won't confirm that Sutcliffe will be the guy, but he would have to alter the starting rotation to put anyone else into the April 6 opener. He could insert one of the surplus starters into the rotation on the final weekend of the exhibition season, which would back Mussina into the season opener, but Sutcliffe allows Oates to avoid choosing among his three best young starters.

The Orioles could do worse than Mussina, who didn't give up a hit in his first nine innings of exhibition work and has yet to give up a run in four starts. Milacki also made a case for himself in his first four appearances, giving up one run on nine hits in 15 innings of work (0.60 ERA), but he struggled yesterday and gave up single runs in four of his six innings.

"I was throwing fairly well," Milacki said. "I thought I had better stuff than the last time out, but every mistake I made they hit. I had better stuff and better velocity. It might not look like it on the scoreboard, but I thought so. My stuff wasn't nearly as good my last game, and I don't think anyone hit the ball hard off me."

That's the way it goes sometimes. Milacki broke into the major leagues with a hard-luck season. He won 14 games in 1989, but by most accounts, he pitched well enough to win 18 and challenge teammate Gregg Olson for American League Rookie of the Year honors. His luck got even harder in 1990, when shoulder problems limited him to 24 starts and left him with a 5-8 record and a 4.46 ERA.

He came back last spring expecting to be put right back into the rotation, but got a rude awakening when the club optioned him to Double-A Hagerstown to open the season. It would be only a few weeks before he was back in the major leagues, but the experience left a mark on his approach to the game.

"I didn't really feel I was in the situation where there was a chance I would go to the minor leagues, but I didn't have a good spring at all," Milacki said. "I thought I could just work on things and get ready, but I found out that you can't afford to take anything for granted. That will wake you up a little bit."

Milacki didn't set the world on fire with his 10-9 performance, but he was the winningest pitcher on a struggling staff, and he was awarded a $1.18 million contract in arbitration. Now, the Orioles are looking for a little more for their money.

"I'd like to see him pitch 180 to 210 innings and stay healthy and win 15 ballgames," Oates said. "I think that's reasonable. I don't think I'm being unreasonable if he's healthy. I don't think that's out of reach."

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