ST.PETERSBURG, FLA — ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Left-hander Brad Pennington and right-hander Mark Williamson spell relief the same way.
Winter was particularly harsh on both relief pitchers. Spring has been kinder. They widened the gap yesterday on the pack competing for the final two spots on the Orioles' 10-man pitching staff.
Williamson pitched 3 1/3 innings and Pennington two, taking care of the middle innings of a six-hit shutout by five Orioles in a 1-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Al Lang Stadium.
Lee Smith pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his second spring save and unveiled a sidearm fastball for a strikeout, and Mike Cook pitched a scoreless eighth. Williamson was summoned early because Arthur Rhodes left the game in the second inning, sent to the training room to ice a bruised thigh muscle injured by Ed Sprague's line drive.
"Nobody who pitched today hurt their chances," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said.
Williamson, who has a 43-34 record and 3.85 ERA in parts of seven seasons with the Orioles, sat by the phone all winter waiting for calls that never came from the other 27 major-league teams. He said that he didn't think much of his chances of returning to the Orioles after he was not tendered a contract in December.
"Slim to none," Williamson said. "I'm grateful to the Orioles that they brought me back. No one else gave me an offer, not even the dreaded NRI: nonroster invite."
The Orioles gave Williamson that much, which gave him hope.
"I went out there this spring more relaxed than any other spring," said Williamson, who is seeking to join Cal Ripken as the only holdovers from the 1988 team. "I figured I had nothing to lose.
"I feel like I've put pressure on them to do something with me," said Williamson.
Williamson, who lowered his spring ERA to 2.03, gladly will accept a long-relief role, but Pennington has greater aspirations.
"If I make this team, hopefully it won't take me long to get back to being the eighth-inning guy and the guy getting some saves when the closer doesn't go out there," Pennington said. "I not only have to do well for this year, but to set myself up for next year. At some point, I've said all along, what I want to do is become a closer."
Pennington, 24, appeared headed in that direction early last season until he had three shaky outings, experienced a long layoff, then was rocked hard upon his return.
He allowed back-to-back home runs on July 5 in Kansas City, when the Royals scored seven runs in the eighth inning.
Pennington described his winter ball experience in Puerto Rico as "terrible, just terrible."
"At least the baseball part of it was," he said. "I had a nice vacation, woke up every morning at 6, and went fishing or snorkeling. The last thing I wanted to think about was baseball. It was good for me to get away from Baltimore, away from all the questions about what went wrong last year."
Pennington went 3-2 with a 6.55 ERA for the Orioles in 34 appearances. He walked 25 batters in 33 innings. This spring, he has walked six hitters in 10 innings, a low total relative to his past. He has 11 strike outs and a 3.60 ERA.
"He has made some progress," pitching coach Dick Bosman said. "But he has a long way to go. Your main job as a left-hander coming out of the pen is to get left-handed hitters out. The best way to do that if you don't throw 95 is to throw your breaking ball for strikes."
In 362 innings of pro ball, Pennington has walked 356 batters and struck out 486.
"I've had a lot better command of all my pitches this spring, especially my slider," Pennington said. "This is the best I've ever pitched, period."
Still, Pennington expects to have high walk totals.
"At some point, they are going to have to come to the realization I am always going to be a guy who walks four or five guys per nine innings," Pennington said. "I can afford to walk some people because I can get out of jams with strikeouts. As long as they don't get out of control when I walk guys in bad situations, everything should be OK."
OK is not the word Pennington used to describe his rookie season.
"It was tough," Pennington said of his first partial season in the majors. "I was pitching in blowout games for the first time in my career, and I went long stretches without pitching at all for the first time. It was a weird situation, and I didn't know how to handle it. For me to pitch effectively, I have to get work."
From Oates' perspective, for Pennington to get work, he must pitch effectively.
"It's a supply-and-demand thing," Oates said. "I'll demand it, and we'll see if he can supply it. . . . I don't know if he can pitch effectively when he has gone seven days without pitching, but he may have to do that if he wants to be here."
Unlike Williamson, Pennington drew the attention of other clubs over the winter, clubs interested in trading for him. Scouts rave about his potential.
"That's nice to hear, but I would rather become a guy managers love," Pennington said.