Rapp's number is on rise after 1-hit outing vs. Twins

Orioles notebook

No. 4 bids to be No. 3 starter

Clark, Conine back from flu

March 19, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- No longer fighting for a place in the rotation, Orioles right-hander Pat Rapp is making a hard charge at the third spot behind Mike Mussina and Sidney Ponson. It's not a question of if he'll be on the starting staff. Just where.

Rapp stated his case again yesterday by limiting the Minnesota Twins to one hit and an unearned run over four innings. He retired the first nine batters he faced before right fielder Albert Belle's three-base error to open the fourth interrupted his momentum. He got the next two outs, then sandwiched two walks around a run-scoring double by Midre Cummings. With the bases loaded, he retired Brian Richardson on a grounder to third.

Cummings' double was the only hit off Rapp, who didn't get the decision in the Orioles' 3-2 win over the Twins. His ERA shrunk to 2.00 in nine innings covering three starts, and that doesn't include the two shutout innings he posted in the club's third intrasquad game.

With Scott Erickson not expected to return until early May, Ponson has been projected as the No. 2 starter, Jason Johnson as the No. 3 and Rapp as the No. 4. But Johnson has been a disappointment this spring, allowing 13 runs and 21 hits in 13 innings while continuing to fall behind hitters and lacking confidence.

At this point, manager Mike Hargrove has been hesitant to assign roles to his starters or relievers. Asked yesterday if he can envision Rapp as his third starter, Hargrove said, "I can see him in the rotation."

"I don't know yet if he's three or what," Hargrove added. "I don't know how that will shake itself out, but it will. Yes, I can see him in that spot, but I can see other people in that spot, too."

Bumping Rapp ahead of Johnson wouldn't require a major overhaul of the spring rotation. Hargrove could flip-flop them in the last two exhibition games, with Rapp starting against the Atlanta Braves on March 31 and Johnson facing the Cincinnati Reds on April 1 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"As of right now, they've got it set up the way they want it, with the days they want us to pitch, but I guess anything can happen," Rapp said.

Hargrove said changing the alignment wouldn't be a "big deal."

"We're going to start running some of our guys over to Sarasota to stretch out and get innings, so we still have a little wiggle room in that regard," he said. "The way it's set up right now, everybody that we're looking at as a starter should have around 30 innings. It's set up where we can be fairly flexible right now."

Rapp, who missed a week because of the flu, didn't throw his changeup yesterday but had good command of his curveball.

"I felt pretty good out there. My mechanics were pretty good. The last inning I started rushing and walked a few guys, and I was just trying to find it after that," he said.

Rapp to J. Johnson: Relax

Rapp said he's noticed that Johnson is putting pressure on himself to step up in Erickson's absence. The effect has been detrimental.

"I don't really know Jason that much, but it looks that way to me," Rapp said. "He's still young and he goes out there some innings and it looks like he's trying to find it every pitch. It doesn't look like any of his pitches are the same mechanics-wise. Just like I do, he gets in a rut where he throws two or three balls where he doesn't want to, and he has trouble getting them back.

"He just needs to relax. He's got good enough stuff. There's no doubt about it."

Clark, Conine return

First baseman Will Clark returned to the lineup yesterday after missing the last four games with the flu. He went 0-for-2 but drove in the Orioles' second run with a sacrifice fly in the second inning. He also made a nice stop of a sharp grounder down the line.

"I'm still a little weak, but I felt OK out there," he said. "The more I sweat, the better I feel."

Jeff Conine also seems to have recovered from the worst of the flu, which caused him to lose about 9 pounds in two days.

"Today I feel pretty good. Yesterday I wasn't quite right," he said.

"After being gone about a week, it feels like the beginning of spring training again."

Conine replaced Harold Baines as the designated hitter again yesterday and said he should be ready to play in the field within the next few days. He hasn't been seen at third base since receiving a cortisone shot on March 10 for the tendinitis in his right rotator cuff.

"We're taking it easy right now, so for the last two days there hasn't been any discomfort," he said.

The tendinitis can be traced to the throws Conine had been making from third during infield drills. He appeared there for only one game, committing an error on the only ball hit to him.

"We tried to do too much too quickly and just overloaded it basically," he said of his shoulder.

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