Farewell to arms is roster fear

O's again opt to keep but 11 pitchers in final juggling for opener

Ponson pounded in finale

Garcia gets raves, spot

Otanez here, Linton due

April 04, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

HOOVER, Ala. -- The Orioles finalized their Opening Day roster yesterday by following the path of least resistance. They also may have exposed themselves to the same pratfall as last season by opting to keep 11 pitchers rather than manager Ray Miller's stated preference for 12.

The joint verdict of general manager Frank Wren and Miller was announced following the Orioles' unsightly 8-7 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium outside Birmingham, Ala. The loss dropped the Orioles to 13-12 for the spring, a largely meaningless statistic.

However, it also featured another blowup by a starting pitcher -- Sidney Ponson this time -- giving rise to fresh concern about the starting rotation.

The Orioles will begin the season tomorrow without a fifth starter on their roster. Scott Kamieniecki was placed on the disabled list yesterday with a strained hamstring suffered March 19. Because Kamieniecki's turn wouldn't arrive until April 11, the Orioles reassigned his projected replacement, Doug Linton, to the minor leagues. The shuffle is a technicality as Linton accompanied the club to Baltimore last night. It also allowed the club more time to free a spot on its 40-man roster for Linton.

Wren also announced the optioning of pitcher Jason Johnson to Rochester while officially stating that nonroster reliever Mike Fetters, third baseman Willis Otanez and rookie second baseman Jesse Garcia had made the team.

"We're going into the season pretty healthy. We don't have any excuses," Miller proclaimed afterward.

None will be accepted. Given Friday's trade for Kansas City Royals first baseman/outfielder Jeff Conine, the Orioles enter the season with a payroll approaching $84 million. As illustrated by the corresponding release of veteran catcher Chris Hoiles, Wren is not bound by past loyalties.

Wren and Miller have downplayed the team's struggle for runs as well as cleanup hitter Albert Belle's slow-developing power. Belle finished camp with one home run in 58 at-bats. The Orioles' .243 team average ranked last in both leagues.

"It's ridiculous to draw any conclusions from these games. They don't count," insisted left fielder B. J. Surhoff. "You start forming impressions Monday. That's when it counts."

Surhoff withheld judgment about the club's new mix except to acknowledge the strong impression made by Garcia, a former Golden Gloves boxer who hit a combined .287 between Bowie and Rochester last season. Garcia's strong defensive play in Havana on March 28 saved an exhibition win over a team of Cuban all-stars. "He obviously showed he can do some things and belongs to be here," said Surhoff, one of the clubhouse's more understated members.

"The guy who has made me take notice the most is Garcia," Wren said.

"I don't think there's as much pressure catching ground balls in front of 40,000 people at Camden Yards as there is in front of 20,000 people watching you get your head beat in," said Miller of Garcia's pugilist makeup. "He may be here a week; he may be here two weeks; he may be here 15 years. What I do know is he's here now."

Garcia was predictably buoyed, though his stay may end soon if starting second baseman Delino DeShields exits the disabled list as hoped later this week. In the meantime, he will back up Jeff Reboulet at second and serve as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner.

"I've always heard that hard work pays off. To me, this is the proof," said Garcia, a former 26th-round draft pick long overshadowed by more physically imposing players.

The larger issue remains pitching. The Orioles led the Grapefruit League in ERA for most of spring, but have recently winced over Kamieniecki's injury and a lack of innings accumulated by Ponson and Scott Erickson. Erickson, for one, yesterday questioned the spacing of his starting assignments and low pitch counts, calling them "a little odd but everybody's got their own thing."

Miller is concerned enough over Erickson's recent struggles that he may be mulling a reunion with favored catcher Lenny Webster.

Ponson allowed six earned runs in one inning yesterday and did not return for the second. He continues to experience tenderness on his right middle finger, which is prone to blisters.

Meanwhile, Kamieniecki will be examined further today as suspicion grows he may be suffering from something more acute than a strained hamstring.

"We know we've got depth down the road a little ways. Even without him we feel very comfortable about our rotation," Wren insisted.

Still, the Orioles tried frantically to obtain another quality starting pitcher this winter when Kamieniecki's return from disk fusion surgery was considered iffy. Now they appear willing to hand over the role to Linton, who has not made a major-league start since undergoing Tommy John elbow surgery in 1997. For his part, Linton forced the issue by allowing only two earned runs in 20 innings, an 0.90 ERA.

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