DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The afternoon belonged to Rick Sutcliffe, though that was partly because no one else wanted to claim it. The Orioles made five errors in a frustrating loss, but their big right-hander made another big step forward, which was much more important, anyway.
Sutcliffe pitched six strong innings against the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday and shook off any doubts that might have sprung from his rocky performance earlier in the week. The club didn't play particularly well this time -- as evidenced by the Blue Jays' come-from-behind 5-3 win -- but the stage is set for Sutcliffe's regular-season debut to be a ceremonious occasion.
He is on schedule to be the Opening Day starter at the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Manager John Oates has not made any announcement to that effect, but he would have to shuffle a smooth-running and successful starting rotation to keep Sutcliffe's turn from coming up April 6.
"That would be a great thing," Sutcliffe said, "but there are things that are more important. We've had a good spring. We need to keep it going and continue right into the season."
The spring rotation has been much better than advertised. Mike Mussina has been almost unhittable. Ben McDonald has been healthy and effective. Bob Milacki has been as steady as ever. The young guys have set a tremendous pace, and Sutcliffe was happy to get back in step after giving up five runs in one inning in his previous appearance.
"I didn't have great velocity today, but I was able to recognize it and adjust," he said. "I was a little bit tentative the last time out. I didn't feel I was as intense as I should have been, and I gave up five runs in one inning. I'm not making any excuses. I'm going to give up runs, but not like that."
That should come as a relief to Oates, who is depending on Sutcliffe to provide leadership for the youthful core of the starting rotation. He stretched out to six innings and could gave gone one more, but he still has a final spring start to get into shape for the regular season.
"This is the best spring physically I've had in a long time," Sutcliffe said. "There is nothing holding me back. I'm anxious to get started. It's getting down to that point and we're playing well."
He surrendered just three hits and did not give up an earned run in yesterday's game. He left with a small blister on the big toe of his right foot, but he left no question about his ability to get quality hitters out. He faced almost every Blue Jays regular and seems ready to face his comeback season without reservation.
"I think all of us would like to throw a little harder," he said, "but I was thrilled. Toronto is a good ballclub. For us to compete, we'll have to face them. You don't want to show them everything you're going to use during the season, but I was throwing all my pitches. I felt good."
Sutcliffe also feels good about the team. He wasn't around to see the rotation founder in 1991, but he knows that starting pitching was not an Orioles' strength last year. The rotation has been retooled, and the preliminary returns have been promising.
"The one question we had to answer was our starting pitching," he said, "and we have shown a lot of improvement. Johnny's going to have some tough decisions to make, but that's great for this team. You want to have your sixth starter pushing to get in there. The first month, the fifth starter isn't going to get a lot of starts with all the off days and weather, so I don't think anybody wants to be that fifth starter, either. Those guys are going to be aching to force someone out of there. I know I'll benefit from that kind of competition, and I think the rest of the team will benefit, too."
The pitchers also figure to benefit from another season of solid defensive play, though it was lacking in yesterday's game. Third baseman Leo Gomez committed two costly errors in the ninth inning. Cal Ripken had two earlier in the game. The Orioles had five in all. But one sloppy game did not alter Sutcliffe's opinion of the team playing behind him.
"That's one thing I've noticed about this club," he said. "The outstanding defense makes it easy to get people out. This team doesn't beat itself. If you throw strikes and keep the ball in the park, you've got a heck of a chance to win."