KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Make no mistake, John Oates has a double standard when it comes to handling his pitching staff.
And he isn't hesitant to admit it.
"This is not a knock at our young pitchers," the Orioles manager said after last night's 2-1 win over the Kansas City Royals, "but if it had been anybody else, [Gregg] Olson would've pitched the ninth inning."
Instead, Rick Sutcliffe was allowed to do the unthinkable -- pitch his third complete game in four starts. With one more appearance remaining before the first month of the season is completed, the veteran righthander already has as many complete games as anybody on the staff had in either of the last two years.
Not bad for a guy who admittedly is at the crossroads of his career, not that it matters to Oates. Sutcliffe is the guy Oates wanted to influence his young starters, to provide the kind of leadership the Minnesota Twins got last year, and the Toronto Blue Jays hope to get this year from Jack Morris.
"Hopefully, sometime our young pitchers will be advanced enough to pitch in that situation," said Oates. "Hopefully there will come a time before the year is over that I'll have the confidence in them that I had in that guy tonight.
"I know he can do it," said Oates. "I want them [the other starters] to see what it takes to finish off a game like that. I want them to see how he stayed ahead and made his pitches right to the end.
"He was still in command, he'd allowed only a couple of scratch hits in the previous five innings. In that situation, I just felt he could get the job done."
For his part, Sutcliffe admits that he revels in finishing what he starts -- and that he's still finding out about himself. "You've got to focus on the whole thing," said Sutcliffe (3-1), who retired 13 of the last 14 batters he faced to finish his six-hitter. "If you just focus on five or six innings, that's all you're going to do.
"I like people shaking my hand [at the end of a game]," said the native and resident of nearby Lee's Summit. "I like being out there with the people standing on their feet -- I had about 200 of them [friends and relatives] on their feet tonight."
But, realistically, could either Oates or Sutcliffe have dreamed of this back in December, when the veteran righthander signed with the Orioles as a free agent?
"The innings [29 2/3 in four starts] don't surprise me," said Oates. "What I wanted out of him was innings. Maybe one run [the total allowed in Sutcliffe's three wins] surprises me, but not the innings."
As optimistic as Sutcliffe was last winter, throughout spring training and even today, he doesn't know whether to be surprised or not. "To be honest, I still don't know what to expect," he said.
"I'm sort of at a crossroads in my career. In one way, because there's been about three years when I didn't play, I could be like a guy with a 30-year-old arm," said Sutcliffe, who is 35. "If I'm like that, then my shoulder should be in its prime.
"Then again, if my velocity doesn't continue to improve I could just fall back to being a guy who pitches to spots trying to get somebody out."
Right now, Sutcliffe figures he's somewhere in between. "In the first inning, before the rain delay, against Detroit [an 8-0 shutout in his previous start] I felt like I threw the ball as hard as I ever have," he said. "If I didn't throw 90 [mph] that night, then I never did."
The chance of Sutcliffe regaining all of his velocity is probably remote, but either way he figures he can survive. "If you see me punch out [strike out] 10 or 11 guys without walking anybody, then you'll know. Right now I'm throwing strikes and using all my pitches.
"But the only thing that stood out in my mind [when he signed] was that this was the only team in the history of the game that made less than 100 errors three years in a row. With our defense, if you don't walk anybody and keep the ball in the park, you've got a chance to win."
The only time Sutcliffe deviated from that philosophy, he said, was in his only setback to date -- a 7-2 loss to Toronto in which he lasted only 2 2/3 innings. "I wanted to dominate in that game," he admitted. "We had lost a tough game the night before and I wanted to show that we could come right back and win. I tried to do something I wasn't capable of doing.
"It's still too early to draw conclusions," said Sutcliffe. "There's a tremendous amount of baseball left to be played. There's some things I'm happy with, and other things that can improve -- my breaking ball can get better."
If it's still too early to draw any conclusions about Sutcliffe, the same can be said about his new team. But with their sixth straight win last night, the Orioles' 9-5 record is their best after 14 games since 1973, when they had the same mark.
However, last night's win wasn't without its consequences. First baseman Randy Milligan and second baseman Bill Ripken became hospital cases after a ferocious collision on Keith Miller's infield single in the fifth inning.
Neither Milligan, who remained hospitalized overnight, nor Ripken are believed to be seriously injured, but they won't be in the lineup tonight. Milligan, who suffered a first-grade concussion and facial injuries, could go on the disabled list, but that decision isn't likely to be made before further observation.
It was Ripken's hit-and-run double that drove in both of the Orioles' runs -- in the fifth inning, just moments before he and Milligan collided.