Mussina back on track, but Mercker still behind Spring setbacks hurt one more than the other

Orioles notebook

March 23, 1996|By Jason LaCanfora | Jason LaCanfora,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Starters Mike Mussina and Kent Mercker showed yesterday that they were in different stages of their preparedness for the regular season.

Both pitchers have been set back by health problems this spring Mussina because of a strained stomach muscle and Mercker because of the flu. Now, both are fine physically. But while Mussina is fine-tuning, Mercker is starving for more work.

Mussina threw 69 pitches, 42 for strikes, and gave up five hits and three runs in five innings in a 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins. Eight of Mussina's 17 balls came in the third inning, so he had virtually perfect control in every frame. Many of the hits were aided by the wind and only 1995 Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova hit Mussina hard.

"I felt much better today than the last time I pitched," said Mussina, who is set to throw 85 pitches in his last spring start. "I felt as good in the fourth and fifth inning as I did in the first and second. There was no drop-off."

Mercker isn't nearly as far along. He has thrown just 13 innings all spring, including two yesterday, and will pitch twice more before the season starts.

He struggled yesterday, allowing one run on four hits and a walk. He pitched out of a seventh-inning jam, though, getting Roberto Kelly and Cordova both to pop out with the bases loaded. Mercker threw 30 pitches in the bullpen after leaving the game, just to get in more work.

Manager Davey Johnson said Mercker is behind the other starters, and he is not yet ready for an 80-pitch outing.

"I felt all right," Mercker said. "It's just a matter of getting out there. It'll come. My changeup is bad right now. I'd like to get more innings. I screwed up by getting the flu."

No relief for bullpen

Johnson's biggest problem isn't with his starters; it's his bullpen.

The rainouts and the need to get more innings for starters has limited the number of appearances by Orioles relievers. Yesterday was a perfect example, with Mussina and Mercker combining for seven innings, and just closer Randy Myers pitching the eighth.

"I haven't been able to do much with my bullpen because the starters got sick," Johnson said. "The bullpen is a prime concern of mine. I'll be using two, sometimes three relievers in the rest of the [spring] games.

"I'm controlling my bullpen right now and I have been. I'd %J definitely like to go with 11 pitchers, but I may go with 10 early in the season because of our off days."

Johnson said he will extend Roger McDowell's outings to two innings at a time, and he wants to get Jesse Orosco more work against left-handed hitters before breaking camp.

Other relievers have barely gotten a look at all. Arthur Rhodes, Keith Shepherd, Don Florence and Mark Lee have combined to pitch 19 2/3 innings this spring.

Surgery for Percibal

The Orioles finalized three pitching decisions yesterday.

Reliever Oscar Munoz cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Rochester, right-handed reliever Alan Mills was placed on the 15-day disabled list with tendinitis in his right shoulder and prospect Billy Percibal will undergo season-ending elbow surgery.

Munoz was not claimed by any other team yesterday, and he has 72 hours to accept or decline his assignment to Rochester. That demotion gives Shepherd and Lee a better shot at starting the year in Baltimore's bullpen.

Mills got a cortisone shot Monday and will not throw at all for at least another week.

Johnson said he will bring along Mills, who pushed too hard after shoulder surgery Aug. 30, very slowly this time.

"I blame myself and I blame [Pat] Dobson a little bit," Johnson said. "But [Mills] is 30 years old. He should know his limitations. If he's throwing breaking balls, I figured everything was all right."

Percibal, 22, was scheduled to start this year in Double-A. He will ppTC undergo arthroscopic elbow surgery Friday by Dr. James Andrews in Alabama and he's scheduled to miss the entire season.

Flu keeps Bonilla down

Bobby Bonilla has missed the past two games with the flu. Johnson said he wanted Bonilla to get in more time at third base, but his symptoms have not cleared up.

"He's gone to the doctors," Johnson said. "He's really under the weather with some sort of flu."

False Hammonds alarm

Oft-injured outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds crashed into the right-field wall yesterday while chasing a foul ball.

He staggered around for a moment after the impact, then flopped down. He was back on his feet minutes later and stayed in the game.

Hammonds said he felt fine after the game and finished 1-for-3 (all three balls were well hit), including his third home run of the spring.

The incident prompted a post-game response from Johnson.

"Uh-oh, here we go again," Johnson said, alluding to Hammonds' injury-prone history.

Dog-sitter needed

Tony Tarasco is trying to find a good home for his dog while the outfielder is on the road.

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