Clockwork Orange: Will new O's tick?

April tradition blooms, but new faces, old doubts color '99 run

`I've heard that it's special'

Wren's improvisation spurs many questions

April 05, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

One week it's a Sunday in Havana. The next it's a Monday in Camden Yards. Both places involve clearing customs.

Mike Mussina taking the mound. Cal Ripken jumping the foul line on his way to third base. Ernie Tyler running out fresh pelotas to the plate ump. A remembrance of those both missing and present. Even within a black-and-orange universe left spinning since last September, these are constants that help separate Our Towne from the rest of baseball. Thirteen players, ranging from fresh-faced second baseman Jesse Garcia to hit man Albert Belle, today swig their first taste of Opening Day in Orioles whites.

"I've heard a lot about it that it's special," said new catcher Charles Johnson. "I'm looking forward to it. It's another first for me."

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have been invited to share Camden Yards' idyllic stage. A businessman's starting time will offer intrigue served as appetizers. Even today's first pitch will be thrown by a still-unknown.

The pre-game move may provide an unintended metaphor for a season in which so little is known for certain. A capacity crowd cannot know if it will again see Ripken at his post next Opening Day. Of more immediacy, no one can say for sure whether general manager Frank Wren's work of improvisation will thrive within the American League East.

For now, there are only questions wrapped within an afternoon of anticipation.

Can Albert Belle produce July numbers in April?

The fate of this season -- and manager Ray Miller's job security -- may rest more on Belle's early bat than any other variable. History suggests anxiety is appropriate.

Without confirming it -- or anything else -- this spring, Belle endured a mostly frustrating camp. Asked to switch to right field, he labored at the new position and never appeared to find an offensive comfort zone. Belle managed one home run in 58 exhibition at-bats, a stat Miller partially rationalized by citing persistent incoming winds at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. (No Oriole hit more than three.)

However, Belle has yet to consistently center pitches. He has occasionally driven balls to right field but has been on top of everything he has pulled. Belle concedes April is not his favorite month. "It's tough to hit when your mind's more on thermals than the pitcher," he said in February.

Belle batted .247 with five home runs and 14 RBIs last April. His career .275 average for April is 21 points below his career mark and easily the lowest of any month. Two years ago in his first season with the Chicago White Sox, Belle hit .206 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in April.

Perhaps a much-anticipated pairing with Camden Yards will have an energizing effect. Belle owned the place with the Cleveland Indians and White Sox, mashing 15 home runs in 153 career at-bats. That pace projects to about 29 home runs at home over a full season.

"If Albert has a so-so start, he'll still have a great year," said Miller. "If he has a good start, he'll have an unbelievable year."

Can this pitching staff hold?

There was no better reason for encouragement earlier in camp nor any better reason for concern late.

The starting rotation hardly experienced a bump during the first three weeks but now must deal with the extended absence of No. 4 starter Scott Kamieniecki (hamstring) and sudden turbulence encountered by No. 2 starter Scott Erickson and No. 5 Sidney Ponson.

Erickson failed to meet his innings quota in two of his final three starts; Ponson, only 22, allowed 16 total bases in one inning Saturday and has struggled with a hot spot on his right middle finger. Should Ponson buckle, the Orioles are faced with a rotation including Doug Linton and Jason Johnson.

Coming off an outstanding spring, Juan Guzman must now eat innings. Inserted between Mussina and Erickson because of last season's inconsistency, he must regularly reach the seventh inning to preserve a delicate bullpen.

The Orioles are depending on a group including veteran nomads Heathcliff Slocumb, Mike Fetters and Ricky Bones to carry leads to closer Mike Timlin. Jesse Orosco and Arthur Rhodes provide a strong deterrent against left-handed hitters.

As Miller is fond of saying: "We'll be fine if our starters can give us six innings or more every day. If not, there's not a bullpen around that can compensate."

Why 11 pitchers?

The Opening Day roster does not resemble what Miller described in March. Public comments aside, Miller lobbied Wren for 12 pitchers but was overruled.

Friday's trade for Opening Day designated hitter Jeff Conine provided an additional right-handed bat and created what Wren acknowledged to be a somewhat "redundant" situation with rookie Willis Otanez. By keeping Otanez, who is out of minor-league options but projected only as an occasional replacement for Ripken and as a right-handed pinch hitter, the Orioles have no room for another pitcher.

Wren insists the club will carry 11 pitchers even after Linton is added to the roster April 11, meaning Doug Johns may be optioned.

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