ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Orioles manager John Oates had a lot of fun building the suspense, but the pitching plans he made public yesterday did not come as a surprise to anyone.
Right-hander Rick Sutcliffe will be the starting pitcher when the Orioles open the regular season against the Cleveland Indians at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. That much should have been obvious weeks ago, when it became apparent that his turn in the rotation would fall on April 6, but Oates did not want to commit himself too quickly.
He announced Sutcliffe yesterday afternoon and laid out his pitching rotation for the first week of the regular season. Bob Milacki will pitch the second game, Ben McDonald will pitch the series finale, and Mike Mussina will pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays in that club's home opener April 10 at SkyDome.
The fifth starter has not been announced. Oates will take advantage of a day off next week to bring Sutcliffe back to pitch the fifth game of the season before moving another pitcher into the rotation. That pitcher figures to be Jose Mesa, but the decision probably will not be announced until this weekend.
Two other pitchers were dropped from consideration yesterday. Veteran left-hander Dennis Rasmussen and right-hander Anthony Telford were sent to the minor-league camp in Sarasota, bringing the number of pitchers to 14. Two of those, Jim Poole and Eric Hetzel, will begin the season on the disabled list. Two others, Jim Lewis and Alan Mills, figure to be optioned this weekend.
Sutcliffe, who is 1-1 with a 2.84 ERA in exhibition play, was the logical choice for the Opening Day assignment. He is a former 20-game winner, and he is the only true veteran in the rotation.
"I think anybody that's ever played this game has thought about pitching Opening Day," Sutcliffe said. "With it being the new stadium and me being on a new club, it's going to be real special for me. It's going to be a game people remember for a long time. Obviously, I want to get the job done."
He has not been the most effective pitcher in camp. That distinction goes to Mussina or Mesa. But Sutcliffe is a veteran who is not likely to get caught up in the Opening Day hoopla, not after spending 12 years in the major leagues and starting five straight openers for the Chicago Cubs from 1985 through 1989.
"We signed Rick Sutcliffe for a reason," Oates said. "We wanted a veteran pitcher who could pitch these types of ballgames and would not get caught up with what's going on around him. The only question was whether he was healthy, and he has pitched better this spring than I had expected."
Sutcliffe also gave Oates an easy out, saving him from having to choose among Mussina, Milacki and McDonald -- all of whom have pitched well enough this spring to warrant the Opening Day assignment.
"I think Rick is probably better suited for this than the rest of us," said McDonald, who was named Opening Day starter last spring, but started the 1991 season on the disabled list. "I don't think things will affect him the way they might affect the rest of us. It's going to be quite an affair."
The schedule does not smile on Mussina, because his final start of the spring would fall on Sunday, a day off. He is scheduled to fly home with the club on Thursday night and return to Florida to pitch in a minor-league game Sunday. That is the only way the club can keep him on the same throwing schedule he has been so successful with the past 3 1/2 weeks.
The fifth starter is scheduled to pitch April 12. Every indicator points to Mesa, who is scheduled to make his final exhibition appearance on Thursday. He is out of minor-league options, so he must make the 25-man major-league roster or be sent through waivers, where he almost certainly would be claimed by one of the many teams in need of pitching. The way the schedule stacks up, his next turn would fall on Tuesday, a day off. He could pitch a camp game on Tuesday in Florida or a simulated game in Baltimore to stay on schedule for the April 12 assignment.
"I think I've pitched pretty well," Mesa said. "It's the best I've ever pitched in spring training. No doubt about it. I feel I'm 100 percent now. I don't think I've ever felt this good. I'm out of options, and when you pitch like this, somebody is going to do something about it."
Oates is withholding the announcement because a lot can change in the final week of spring training. Storm Davis has pitched well enough to warrant the starting assignment, and he still might get it if there is a deal or an injury between now and Sunday. No sense making him look like the second choice.
Davis has said that he has no problem with starting the season in the bullpen, but he came back to the Orioles with high hopes of resurrecting his career as a starting pitcher. He likely will get that chance at some point during the upcoming season, but it doesn't look as if it will happen in the next few weeks.
Exhibition opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Last year's major-league statistics for the four Orioles pitchers named as starters yesterday:
Pitcher. . . . W-L. . . IP. . . H. . . ERA
Sutcliffe. . . 6-5. . . 96.2. . 96 . . 4.10
Milacki. . . . 10-9 . . 184 . . 175. . 4.01
McDonald . . . 6-6. . . 126.1 . 126. . 4.84
Mussina. . . . 4-5. . . 87.2. . 77 . . 2.87