ST. PETERSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For starters, Alan Mills is neutral about the role he fills for the Orioles this year.
Heretofore used almost exclusively as a reliever, Mills made his second start of the spring yesterday. He fared much better than he did in his first outing, when he gave up three runs to the Toronto Blue Jays before retiring a batter.
Yesterday, Mills pitched three hitless and scoreless innings against the Blue Jays, but it wasn't enough to prevent the Orioles' fourth loss in five exhibition games. Toronto scored three times in the ninth inning off closer Lee Smith for a 7-4 win.
Mills was the game's most effective pitcher, and he appears to be the Orioles' trump card if they need another starting pitcher. Manager Johnny Oates has said there is no significance to the fact that Mills has started twice, but each time the right-hander opens a game, it increases speculation.
"Right now we only have four starting pitchers," said Oates, referring to the fact that Sid Fernandez hasn't appeared in a game yet because of a case of biceps tendinitis. "Somebody has to start. And if he [Mills] doesn't pitch Saturday [against the Florida Marlins], then he'll probably start the next day [against the Philadelphia Phillies]."
And if his next appearance is a start, Oates indicated that Mills might go four innings, which would be the normal progression for someone preparing for a starting role. But Oates insists it is too early to read anything into the situation.
"There's nothing wrong with Alan getting some innings," said the manager. "He's pitched four or five innings for us a lot of times."
Oates also said the fact Mills hasn't pitched more than two
innings in a game in his previous spring training camps with the Orioles was insignificant.
"That was because we didn't have enough innings to go around," he said. "Right now we've got more than enough innings."
Mills seems a bit curious about his starting assignments but said he doesn't expect the trend to continue.
"I think that's the end of it," he said after finishing his three innings yesterday. "I'm supposed to pitch behind Ben [McDonald] Saturday."
But Oates has obviously left the door open for Mills to make at least one more start.
"To tell you the truth, it doesn't matter to me," said Mills, "as long as I'm pitching in the big leagues. I really don't have a preference. I like the bullpen, but I also like starting. I just feel more confident now pitching out of the bullpen because I've done it more.
"But I don't want anybody to think I wouldn't welcome the challenge [of starting] if that's what they want me to do. It's not my job to decide when I pitch. It's my job to get people out whenever I pitch."
Mills and Oates had different versions of why he was more successful yesterday -- and both had considerable validity.
"He didn't walk the first batter, hit the second batter and have to pitch to [Paul] Molitor," said Oates. "He threw the ball good then [Friday]. But when you put the first two batters on base and have to face their 3-4-5 [hitters], that's not very good pitching."
John Olerud was the only member of that 3-4-5 lineup Mills had to face yesterday. And he walked one and struck out two.
"I wasn't as anxious, or nervous as the first time," said Mills. "I went in with the idea of establishing the strike zone right away because I didn't do that before."
Smith's problems continue
For the second straight time, Smith wasn't able to establish control of the strike zone. If it were later in the exhibition season, there would be cause for concern, but now Oates will give the veteran as much time as he needs to get ready.
Smith had a few disagreements with plate umpire Drew Coble during his one-inning stint and wasn't in a mood for any post-game discussions.
"Not today," said the right-hander.
Said Oates: "I'm certainly not going to make any judgments on two games. He wasn't missing that much today. He threw about seven pitches that could've been strikes."
Smith and Jim Poole were the victims of a nine-run inning in Saturday's 11-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Poole fared a lot better yesterday, working two scoreless innings and striking out four.
"He threw OK, but he's not ready yet, either," said Oates. "He doesn't have the arm strength yet, just like [Mike] Mussina."
Poole did have the somewhat dubious distinction of knocking 1,159 runs off his ERA. He had a 1,189.00 ERA after allowing seven runs in one-third of an inning Saturday.
The two scoreless innings yesterday dropped Poole's ERA to 30.00. Smith's remained in the stratosphere, 27.00.
Baines sits out again
Harold Baines originally was listed as part of the Orioles' game squad yesterday but was scratched. Oates said that Baines remains day-to-day and might make his debut today against the Cleveland Indians.
Mike Devereaux returned to the lineup yesterday and went hitless in three at-bats. He had been sidelined since suffering two facial cuts in the first inning of the exhibition opener against Toronto on Friday.
Fernandez threw from a pitching mound yesterday and has been pronounced fit to make his first appearance of the spring tomorrow night against the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale.
Arthur Rhodes, Mark Williamson and Brian DuBois were scheduled to pitch today against the Indians, who are expected to start ex-Oriole Dennis Martinez.
Mussina, Fernandez and Barry Manuel will face the Yankees tomorrow night.