Baseball managers sometimes say the darndest things at the darndest moments and in the darndest places.
It certainly appeared to all 45,472 gathered at Oriole Park last night that Johnny Oates was simply making a pitching change in the fourth inning, bringing in Storm Davis to replace Bob Milacki in the midst of a 5-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.
It even seemed that way to Davis, who pitched 5 1/3 effective innings, giving up one run and four hits. That is, until Oates was about to leave the mound.
That's when the manager dropped his own bombshell on Davis in advance of the Fourth of July: Storm will be joining the rotation, effective Saturday in Minnesota.
"That was a shock. It was the last thing I expected to hear at that moment," said Davis, whose last start (May 24, 1991) oddly enough also was in Minnesota when he played for Kansas City. "I've been greeted a lot of ways, but that's definitely one of the more different ones."
Although the timimg of the announcement was unusual, the pronouncement itself was not a surprise.
The Orioles have gotten mostly inconsistency from the fourth and fifth spots in their starting rotation, and Davis has pitched impressively in long relief.
"I think he deserves it. I felt all along when we could get better, we would try," said Oates, who had hinted before last night's game that he was considering inserting Davis into the rotation.
But Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman became convinced somewhere in the third or fourth inning, when Milacki gave up his four runs, that a change was in order. And Oates said, the change is effective for the foreseeable future.
Davis, who has made 219 starts in his career, including 121 with the Orioles in his first stint here, accepted the change matter of factly.
"If he [Oates] sees fit that it's better for me to be in the rotation, so be it," said Davis. "The bottom line is what will make the Baltimore Orioles better."
Davis, who has given up one run and five hits in his last five appearances, covering 12 2/3 innings, probably can do no worse than Milacki, who has a 10.34 ERA in his last four starts, or Jose Mesa, who was drubbed Sunday against Kansas City.
Davis, who nearly made the rotation out of spring training, has been lifting weights consistently under a training program with Allan Johnson, the team's strength and conditioning coach. He said he is not concerned with the strength of his arm.
"I tried to set goals for myself, to get in maybe 55-60 games," said Davis. "I'll just have to regroup and set new goals. Arm strength will come. We do a lot of throwing down in the bullpen. I think the arm is ready to do whatever is needed."
Milacki, who gave up four runs and seven hits in 3 2/3 innings, was as philosophical as he could be, considering that he has lost at least a turn in the rotation, and possibly a spot on the roster.
"I haven't been pitching well. I knew that he [Oates] would be making some changes. I just tried to keep plugging away. He gave me every opportunity to stay in the rotation. I pitched out of it. I'm just going to get back on track," said Milacki, who could be the spot starter with Mesa the odd man out.
"I can see the point. We're in a pennant race, and you can't keep going out there and giving up three-four runs in the first couple of innings. Maybe a little change will get things going again."
Oates was not terribly sympathetic to the notion that Milacki may have been pitching with a self-inflicted need to perform on his shoulders.
"That's part of the game. I've got pressure on me every night. We all have pressure," said Oates.
Last night, Milacki, who gave up no runs in the first and second innings, before giving up run-scoring extra-base hits in the third and fourth innings, said his downfall was failing to keep his pitches down in the strike zone.
"Before, it was falling behind in the count that got me in trouble," said Milacki. "I thought I had some good stuff, but I didn't get a couple pitches over. It just sort of snowballed. The result is I gave up [four] runs."
Oates said, "The first couple of innings, he was pretty good. After that, he got the ball up and it's tough to pitch with the ball up in the strike zone."
Oates said he hadn't decided yet who would pitch next Tuesday at home against Chicago, the next available spot in the rotation for the fifth starter.
It appears though that Milacki, and not Mesa, will probably lose a spot in the rotation since Milacki has pitched effectively in relief before, while Mesa has made all but one of his major-league appearances as a starter.
What is clear is that the Orioles' success of April and May has placed their June performance, and particularly their 10 losses in the last 16 games, under a microscope.
But here they are, and either Milacki or Mesa or both will be the first casualty of the pennant race. Davis' next relief stint won't be out of bullpen