Orioles pitch for answers in Texas

April 15, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

If there's such a thing as a crucial series this early in the year, the one facing the Orioles in Texas this weekend definitely qualifies. However, it has little to do with the outcome of the next three games.

Having won two of three in Detroit to start their first road trip of the year, the Orioles' 5-3 record has them in a relatively comfortable position. But there are questions that remain to be answered, and a starting rotation that needs to be more clearly defined.

How the pitching staff comes out of the three-game set against the powerful Rangers figures to provide an early line. For the first time this year, the Orioles are in a stretch that requires manager Johnny Oates to use his entire five-man rotation.

That means the long-awaited, but delayed, debut of Sid Fernandez in an Orioles uniform. It also means the first start for Arthur Rhodes on a regular schedule. How those two fare could be an early indication of what to expect from the pitching staff once the season progresses past the inconsistencies of the first month.

Until now, work irregularities probably have had an adverse effect on everybody except Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. They are the only two pitchers who have been on a set schedule.

The Orioles will have their fourth off day of the month on Monday, then are scheduled to play 13 straight games through May 1. Although he will need a fifth starter only five more times before June 5 (and 11 by the All-Star break), the time has come for Oates to find the proper alignment for his rotation.

Fernandez, who faces the Rangers Sunday night, has pitched almost three times as many innings (six) in two minor-league rehabilitation starts as he did during the entire exhibition schedule (2 1/3 ). But he will provide a hint to the answer of only the second most important question facing the Orioles this weekend.

The big left-hander will be on an 80-pitch limit in his first start for the Orioles. Oates undoubtedly will be looking for more than that from Rhodes -- hopefully stretched over more than four or five innings.

Rhodes, who pitches the opener tonight, lasted only three innings in his season debut last Sunday, when the Rangers hit two homers and scored six runs. The young left-hander had not pitched under game conditions for 11 days before that outing, and his style is not conducive to prolonged inactivity.

That shouldn't be a factor tonight, but it remains to be seen if he can adapt to an irregular schedule, which is the curse of every starter who has to work out of the No. 5 hole in the rotation.

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