The Kansas City Royals were the closest major-league team to La Junta, Colo., but Mike Oquist, like most of the small town's residents, was an Orioles fan. Specifically, he was a fan of Tippy Martinez, the pride of La Junta.
Oquist joined his family on several trips to Kansas City to watch the Orioles in hopes of seeing the left-handed reliever who occasionally visited the Oquist family plumbing and heating shop. Oquist will face one of Martinez's former teammates today when he makes his first major-league start against Cleveland.
"Eddie Murray was always one of my favorite players," Oquist said. "It seemed like he was real competitive. He's one of the guys I remember seeing walking through the hotels. It'll feel weird pitching to him, but I'm sure everybody goes through that when they first come up."
Oquist, 25, has made six relief appearances, including five last season, and has a 4.26 ERA and no decisions.
Oquist's game plan for his first start: "I'm going to pitch to my strengths instead of worrying too much about the hitters' weaknesses."
"Throwing my slider for strikes at any time in the count," he said.
Oquist called home Thursday to let his family know he was making his first start, which started their search for a satellite feed for the game.
"I think my mom's going to break down and get one," Oquist
She won't be the only Oquist feeling jitters.
"Everybody's nervous making your first start ever in the big leagues," Oquist said. "I'm looking forward to it quite a bit."
Pennington hit by line drive
Rochester reliever Brad Pennington was hit on the right temple by a line drive on his first pitch in Thursday night's 14-8 loss to Pawtucket. He was treated at a hospital in Rochester, and released without having to spend the night.
Pennington has pitched 5 2/3 innings in four appearances since being demoted to Triple-A. He has allowed five hits, walked three and struck out eight, posting a 3.18 ERA.
Hammonds still sidelined
Jeffrey Hammonds, still feeling the effects of a concussion he sustained in a home-plate crash Saturday night with Seattle catcher Bill Haselman, was out of the lineup.
"I feel a little better, but I'm not back to normal," Hammonds said. "I feel comfortable in the box, but my head still hurts when I run. I get a little light-headed, a little dizzy."
The first thing Hammonds did after the collision?
"I counted my teeth to make sure they were all there," Hammonds said. "Then I told him nice play."
Fernandez ready for start
Left-hander Sid Fernandez, who came out of his Wednesday start in the sixth inning because of pain in his right knee, threw on the side yesterday without trouble and is on schedule to make his fifth start Monday.
"It's fine," Fernandez said after throwing. "No problem at all."
Fernandez will face Toronto in the opener of a three-game series. He will oppose left-hander Al Leiter. Juan Guzman faces Jamie Moyer in the second game. Mike Mussina will pitch the finale for the Orioles, but the Blue Jays starter is unknown after Dave Stewart pulled a groin muscle last night.
Indians dig deep
The Indians dipped all the way to Single-A to fortify their bullpen yesterday, calling up hard-throwing right-hander Paul Shuey.
Shuey, 23, was the second player chosen in the 1992 draft, taken two selections ahead of Hammonds.
He was 1-0 with a 3.75 ERA and eight saves for Kinston. He walked three and struck out 16 batters. Shuey's fastball has been clocked as high as 98 mph.
The Indians are hoping Shuey can stabilize their short relief situation. The Indians have been successful on eight of 16 save attempts.
"Paul will be used in the back end of the bullpen," Cleveland general manager John Hart said. "This is a position that he has been groomed for since the day we drafted him. Paul has the best arm in our system and this year he has come a long way."
Mussina and Ben McDonald rank among American League leaders in ERA, wins, innings pitched, opponents' batting average and fewest walks per nine innings. . . . The Orioles pitching staff entered the night having allowed 84 walks, the fewest in the AL. . . . The Orioles ranked first in the AL in fielding percentage. . . . Fernando Valenzuela's numbers have been less than impressive thus far in the Mexican League. "I talked to Fernando's agent [Tony DeMarco] about two weeks ago and he said he would give us a call when he thought Fernando was ready to be looked at," Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said.