ARLINGTON, Texas -- It was almost a year ago that the young, erratic left-hander walked out of Double-A and into Arlington Stadium to make his major-league debut.
Arthur Rhodes was neither the first nor the last to make that jump, but not many have done so under the same set of circumstances. For one thing, he was pitching in the closest big-league park to his hometown, Waco, just 90 miles away.
In addition, the Orioles, wallowing in the depths of the American League East, were hoping to get a glimpse of their future.
vTC Every time they attempted to talk about a major trade, one player was the common denominator. Rhodes was coveted by just about every organization in baseball, but the Orioles wouldn't let themselves be tempted.
Instead, they promoted Rhodes far ahead of schedule to get a firsthand look at his raw talent. And in nine starts, that's all they saw -- raw talent.
Tonight, in the same setting he had for his major-league debut, Rhodes will make his second start of the season for the Orioles, facing the Texas Rangers. It will be a lot more important for his -- and the club's -- immediate future than was that game last Aug. 21 (a 4-3 win in which he did not figure in the decision).
"All I remember about that game is that I was nervous and walked a lot of guys," Rhodes said. But he said he had no regrets about pitching in front of family and friends.
"I wanted to pitch here," he said. Will he be less nervous the second time around? "I hope so."
This time out, the Orioles will be looking to see whether Rhodes can be one of the pitchers to help solidify their starting rotation. Unlike a year ago, there are no guarantees that Rhodes will finish the season in the big leagues.
Orioles manager Johnny Oates said from the beginning of spring training he preferred that Rhodes get a full season of Triple-A polish. But opportunity is often born of necessity, and when the Orioles decided to make two changes in their rotation, Rhodes instantly became a designated candidate.
After one start, the Orioles already know the 22-year-old is a more mature, more polished, more at-ease pitcher than he was a year ago. What they are waiting to see, patiently if necessary, is whether his time has come to set up permanent camp in the big leagues.
"This game is more important [than last year's]," said Oates, "not so much as to the end result -- but to see improvement. We don't expect to see Jim Palmer and Nolan Ryan wrapped up in one package."
Neither does Oates expect to see improvement over his last start, a 4-2 win over the Minnesota Twins during which Rhodes pitched 7 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and the two runs.
"I don't expect him to be able to do that every time," said Oates. "What we're looking for is the consistency to keep us in the game -- not having two or three base runners and throwing 24 or 25 pitches every inning. The idea is to go out and pitch."
That's something Rhodes couldn't do a year ago -- and did in his start against the Twins, his first major-league win. "What I saw in that game was something I didn't see in any of his nine starts last year," said Oates. "In those games, he just threw the ball -- against the Twins, he pitched."
Oates won't commit to Rhodes beyond tonight's start, but it's likely he'll be around for a while -- perhaps for good. "I think he's more at ease now," said Oates. "He has more confidence -- he should have more confidence.
"But his track record in the minor leagues is that he'd pitch one good game, then one bad one, so we have to wait and see. I'd rather see him be able to go out and keep us in the game for three or four out of five starts, rather than pitch two unbelievable games and knocked out the other three times.
"What we're looking for is that consistency from game to game. But first you have to be consistent from pitch to pitch, then hitter to hitter, and then inning to inning," said Oates.