FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- So far, so good. No warts on any pitching hands. No career- threatening neck and shoulder injuries. No line drives caroming off foreheads.
The Orioles' starting pitchers are cruising through a spring season as uneventful and effective as last year was calamitous.
"I'd say we're due," said former pitching coach Mike Flanagan, temporarily in uniform these days as a spring instructor.
Sure, it's way too early to get excited. Grapefruit League innings pitched against obscure opponents wearing offensive linemen's numbers are hardly a meaningful barometer.
But a healthy, solid start for the rotation was important after 1998's disaster, and there's been nary a blip.
Don't expect that to continue for six months, but if the trend holds to any degree, the Orioles will benefit from more stable starting pitching in 1999.
"And that changes everything," Flanagan said.
That, it does. The Orioles engineered a trick play on the base paths late in yesterday's 6-4 victory over the Twins, a delayed double steal involving Harold Baines, of all people. It produced an insurance run.
"We can do things like that when our starters keep us in ballgames," manager Ray Miller said. "It's hard to be exciting when you're down five or six runs early."
Not that yesterday's starter, Mike Mussina, was at his dominating best. He allowed seven hits and two earned runs in five innings prolonged by some shaky defense.
"I thought I threw OK," he said. "I could have gone longer."
As it was, he ran the combined spring record of the club's top three starters -- Mussina, Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman -- to 4-1 with a 3.40 ERA. Throw in Scott Kamieniecki and Sidney Ponson, both of whom also have pitched well, and the combined ERA of the starters drops to 2.72 through 16 games.
This is a team that needs help in the rotation?
"Hopefully, we'll all throw the ball as well for the majority of the season as we're throwing it now," Mussina said.
What's happening now is a 180-degree turn from last year, when the rotation's collapse was the cornerstone of a highly disappointing season. Mussina went on the disabled list twice, once for a wart on his finger and once after being hit in the head with a line drive. Jimmy Key, the No. 2 starter, broke down with shoulder problems and ultimately retired. Kamieniecki was of little use because of neck problems that required surgery.
Mussina, Erickson and Guzman combined for only 39 wins, a modest total for any rotation's top guns.
"I don't even want to talk about last year," Miller said yesterday.
Can you blame him?
"I don't think [a starting rotation] could have a season more `eventful,' " Flanagan said.
The scent of a fresh start is unmistakable these days, and certainly, if the same bad luck doesn't strike as forcefully this season, this is a rotation with upside potential.
Mussina? He looks fine, completely back on track. Erickson? He won 16 games for baseball's biggest underachiever last season. It's reasonable to expect close to 40 combined wins from those two this season.
Guzman, acquired from Toronto last July, could become the pivotal figure. He can still dominate with his nasty stuff, but he won only 10 of 33 starts last year while rebounding from shoulder surgery.
He looks like his old self this spring, having allowed only 10 hits and two earned runs in 12 strong innings.
"He got into some bad habits last season, pulling off [from his delivery] and doing other things," Flanagan said, "but he's a hard worker and he's working to eliminate those problems and strengthen his arm. He has a lot of upside [potential]."
Kamieniecki's return from neck surgery wasn't expected and was slowed by a hamstring strain over the weekend, but there's reason to believe he's capable of chewing up innings and winning again. And Ponson? His last outing was strong.
"Right now, there's not too much to complain about," Mussina said.
Nor is the staff complaining about the addition of Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson, whose presence should put a halt to the sprint-fests opponents have staged on the base paths in recent years.
"That's a huge factor," Mussina said.
Not that the Orioles are wrong to be actively scouting possible additions such as Kansas City's Kevin Appier, a former No. 1 starter coming back from arm trouble. Kamieniecki's health is hardly assured, and Ponson is still a babe. A rotation that's effective now could still wind up in desperate need of help. Soon.
But a strong spring from the starters has helped the club's outlook and attitude. After the relentless disappointment of last season, it's somewhat of a jolt to the senses to find such a positive development unfolding in the spring sunshine. But there it is.
"I feel pretty good about it," Mussina said.
Pub Date: 3/22/99