Valenzuela working rotation up and in

JOHN EISENBERG

May 08, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- You want social climbing? Listen to this one.

Fernando Valenzuela was the fifth starter in the Orioles' rotation, and a shaky one at that, when he threw his first pitch against the Blue Jays last night at SkyDome. Then he started moving up. And up.

He passed Arthur Rhodes and moved into the No. 4 spot sometime in the fourth inning, which has been the average point of Rhodes' departures this season.

He passed Ben McDonald and moved into the No. 3 spot sometime in the fifth inning, by which time McDonald had departed against the Jays on Thursday night, having allowed a dozen home runs or something like that.

If Rick Sutcliffe gets hit hard again today, Valenzuela will move into the No. 2 spot.

And if Mike Mussina suddenly starts to stumble . . .

OK, OK, that's going a little too far. Valenzuela isn't about to supplant the indomitable Mussina as the linchpin of the Orioles' pitching staff. But he suddenly is as trustworthy as any of the other starters, if not more so -- and not just because the others are having lousier springs than Bill Clinton's budget wonks.

It's true that Valenzuela was maybe a couple of hanging fastballs away from being released when he gave up three runs in the first inning against the Royals last weekend, but he has since demonstrated a form no less than splendid.

He went on to pitch six scoreless innings against the Royals last weekend, then last night pitched eight innings of six-hit ball in the Orioles' 3-2 loss to the Jays. It was one of the club's best starts of the year.

Valenzuela was the Orioles' single biggest question mark when the season began, but at this point at least a dozen of his teammates -- including Rhodes, McDonald and Sutcliffe -- are ahead of him on the list of players about which to worry.

Forget the much-debated issue of whether Valenzuela's reincarnation as an Oriole is going to be a cameo performance. It isn't. As they say in baseball: He's in the rotation to stay, at least for now. The essential questions have been answered. His arm is sound. He can get out the best hitters in the American League.

Who would you rather have as your starting pitcher, Rhodes or Valenzuela? McDonald or Valenzuela?

OK.

Such a plight is, of course, indicative of the Orioles' miserable start, which has grown to encompass 17 losses in 27 games. But Valenzuela is anything except the culprit. He's suddenly one of the season's few pleasant developments.

The club badly needed a win last night after McDonald's miserable performance, and Valenzuela pitched well enough to provide it. He gave up two early runs, escaped a two-on, none-out jam in the fourth and settled into a fine groove, allowing not a single Jay to pass first base from then on. He left after eight innings with the score tied at 2. Todd Frohwirth gave it up in the ninth.

Valenzuela made just one real mistake: a third-inning walk to the Jays' No. 9 hitter, Dick Schofield, who came around to score. The only other run he allowed was on a Joe Carter home run, which is standard fare for all American League pitchers.

The circumstances were dangerous -- on the road against a team with the league's third-highest batting average -- but Valenzuela had the Jays biting on his cut fastball and his infamous screwball, which was dropping deliciously. And being the smart old pro that he is, he lived on the inside corner.

"I thought he was outstanding," manager Johnny Oates said. "He didn't have a lot of 1-2-3 innings, but he made some quality pitches against a team that's swinging the bat well."

Whether he can keep it up is another matter, of course, but he doesn't need to pitch as well as last night to keep his job. Remember, the Orioles never expected Fernandomania II. They know he has thrown too many balls to be that pitcher again. They just wanted a credible fifth starter. It doesn't take much. Jose Mesa was 3-8 last year. Craig Lefferts was 1-3. Last night's Valenzuela will more than suffice.

Shoot, it would more than suffice for the No. 4 starter. And the No. 3 starter. And the No. 2 starter.

In any event, his trial is over. Oates said there never was one, but it's clear Valenzuela was close to the edge after getting knocked around in two starts for the Orioles and one for Double-A Bowie. But baseball moves fast, and that stuff already is ancient history.

Get rid of Valenzuela? Don't be ridiculous.

The way things are going, the Orioles are depending on him.

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