Prep done, Mussina looks ahead

O's ace on schedule

rest of staff scrambling

March 30, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Another spring training effectively ended for Mike Mussina yesterday. He pitched six eventful innings against the Montreal Expos. He won. He iced. He cracked wise. Mussina leaves town this morning as he arrived, a pending free agent expected to steady an uncertain staff. No one questions his readiness for the season.

If only the same applied to the rest of the Orioles' rotation.

Scott Erickson's March 3 arthroscopic surgery and Jason Johnson's lost spring have created a rotation unimaginable when camp opened six weeks ago. Mussina, last year's Cy Young Award runner-up, represents a constant amid chaos.

"We came to camp looking at four guys we were pretty sure would be out there to do a job. Scotty goes down and created another hole. Jason's situation crops up so the four guys we were counting on at the end of last year are down to two," Mussina said. "I think it changes a little bit."

The Orioles play the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter this afternoon, grab a two-hour flight to Atlanta, then play the Braves tomorrow night before completing their spring schedule Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Mussina gets to play tourist before walking in from the center-field bullpen on Monday to open the Orioles' season against the Cleveland Indians.

Except for a March 20 start against Boston Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez being rained out on account of indifferent groundskeeping, Mussina felt comfortable within a spring of mound uncertainty.

"From my perspective, I'm looking forward to getting back out there," Mussina said. "We have to make do with what we have. That's the nature of the job."

The state of the rotation is not appreciably better than a year ago when Erickson and Sidney Ponson broke camp unprepared for the season. Erickson endured a winless April. Ponson didn't win until April 29 and the Orioles suffered a ruinous 6-16 month.

Without Johnson, manager Mike Hargrove is relying on Pat Rapp to handle the No. 3 spot and Calvin Maduro to serve as No. 4 until Erickson's hoped-for return late next month.

"If we concern ourselves with what we have to do individually when it's our turn to pitch, holding it together will probably happen," Mussina said. "If we don't throw well, if we force the bullpen to do more than they're capable of doing, it's going to be a problem, and by the time Scotty comes back we may not be where we want to be."

Mussina leaves camp having surrendered eight earned runs in 21 innings and comfortable with the command of both his pitches and negotiating position with the club.

Mussina insists ongoing negotiations for a contract extension have not become a distraction. A handy sign placed inside his name plate signals a "red light," meaning nothing new with talks. "Should I bring it with me?" he asked.

The Orioles recently modified their five-year offer to Mussina from $50 million to $60 million with $2 million deferred each year, according to club sources. There is apparently little chance for a resolution before Opening Day, though majority owner Peter Angelos and Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, may talk in the next two days. Executive vice-president John Angelos said yesterday that the club shares Mussina's position that there is no "necessity" for "an artificial deadline."

The possibility of the Orioles obtaining pitching help remains remote as well. Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift has minimized the chance for a trade before next Monday, though he acknowledges making inquiries.

The team has asked about Twins ace Brad Radke, a pending free agent, and San Diego Padres left-hander Sterling Hitchcock. Thrift attempted to construct a three-team deal bringing Hitchcock to Baltimore during December's winter meetings but could not find a willing partner. Twins general manager Terry Ryan insists Radke is not available for trade despite Thrift's persistent inquiries.

"Everyone is trying to hold onto the best that they have because they have fan bases they're trying to present the best possible product to. When you take a top pitcher away from a franchise, they're subject to fan reaction," Thrift said.

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