Pitching field narrows in O's game of survivor

Young and old, 6 vie for last 2 starting spots

March 14, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The most interesting math of spring quickly approaches. The Orioles now have 19 days to decide how to divide two by six. Fractions aren't allowed.

With less than three weeks remaining until Opening Day, the Orioles still wonder who will secure the final two spots in a curious starting rotation. The candidates include a career reliever, a pitcher recovering from a 1-10 season and four impressionable talents participating in their first major-league camp. Who among Chuck McElroy, Jason Johnson, Josh Towers, Jay Spurgeon, John Parrish and Willis Roberts will survive remains an open equation.

Doing little to end the suspense, manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday, "I don't think we're in any particular hurry to resolve that situation."

The only sure thing is that Pat Hentgen, Jose Mercedes and Sidney Ponson will start the Orioles' season-opening series against the Boston Red Sox. Who follows remains a source of intrigue to the participants.

"The main thing as a player is not to try to play front office," said McElroy, who allowed a run in two innings of yesterday's 10-3 loss to the Florida Marlins. "All that does is destroy you mentally. Then you're not taking care of your business out there. It's out of your hands anyway."

McElroy is the drama's most pivotal figure. The Orioles projected him as a starter after he made only two starts last September. He could earn a starting job, return to the bullpen or even become involved in a late-spring trade.

Should McElroy make the rotation, a spot for left-hander John Bale may open.

Should McElroy return to the bullpen as its third left-hander, Bale would likely be optioned to Triple-A Rochester.

Should he be traded ... the variables become innumerable.

"I've been in camps when we've been pretty well set," recalled Hargrove, who occasionally enjoyed such a luxury while with the Cleveland Indians. "There are other camps when you have four, five, six, seven spots to fill. If we were in camp with seven spots to fill, that borders on panic. The decisions that we have here - three or maybe four decisions - some are going to be easy to make and some of them are going to be more difficult to make. But they're not anything out of the ordinary.

"Good decisions will have to be made. We'll make them at the appropriate time."

The Orioles will extend their spring rotation from four to five beginning with Hentgen's appearance on Saturday. By March 22, the picture could start to clear. The fifth starter is not incidental to the team making a strong getaway as the early schedule dictates he appear no later than April 7 in Cleveland.

Hargrove has been careful not to handicap the scramble for the rotation's final two berths, but all indications point to Johnson as having a secure hold on the No. 4 spot, with at least five others vying for the No. 5 role. Of the others, Towers and McElroy have made one start while Spurgeon and Parrish have appeared exclusively in relief.

Spring statistics are often misleading given the preponderance of "B" games that do not count as official numbers. (Yesterday's start against the Marlins was Hentgen's second in a sanctioned exhibition, but he also has twice worked intraquad games either here or in Sarasota.)

Still, Parrish and Spurgeon have noticeably struggled, surrendering a combined 15 hits and 19 base runners in 7 1/3 innings. Both have received fewer innings than Towers and the swingman Bale. Roberts, a nonroster invitee who might also fit in relief, is attempting to duplicate last spring's breakout by 14-game winner Mercedes.

The Orioles have been cautious not to oversell Johnson's start, but they remain pleased that the right-hander who stumbled to a 1-10 record last summer has opened camp with a more positive and mature approach.

"This is totally different for me," Johnson said. "I'm more relaxed now than at any time last year."

Johnson is 2-0 with a 1.64 ERA that includes only two walks against five strikeouts in 11 innings. Even Monday's three-run second inning against the Marlins prefaced a positive when he followed with two shutout innings. A similar inning last season was typically followed by a total collapse.

Johnson partially credits a series of visual exercises designed by California ophthalmologist William Harrison as improving his focus and concentration. The pitcher also cites a new mentality that includes none of the assumptions that led to last spring's disastrous camp.

"I'm not taking for granted that I've made this team. I'm looking at it as though I have to take a spot," he said.

The Orioles have heard Johnson talk before without backing it up. This month's difference has been an obvious aggressiveness minus last year's rationalizations.

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