No shock: Hentgen O's choice for opener

Past success clinches spot

Mercedes patient

March 27, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles manager Mike Hargrove made official the obvious yesterday, naming Pat Hentgen his Opening Day starter.

Jose Mercedes heard the news and offered a shrug.

Curiously positioned as the staff's No. 4 starter, Mercedes made his final Grapefruit League appearance yesterday, surrendering 10 hits and three earned runs in six innings of a 6-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Mercedes, who won't make his regular-season debut until April 6 in Cleveland, reflected on how he could be projected as Opening Day starter during December's winter meetings and wind up as No. 4 by the fourth week in March.

"My time will come. I'm still around. If not this year, then maybe next year. I just want to pitch for the team," said Mercedes. "I want everything to go well. All I want to do is my job, and hopefully everybody else will do their job. We're all teammates. They're the ones who have to make those decisions."

Hargrove went with Hentgen over Mercedes because of his resume.

A former Cy Young Award winner, Hentgen is one of five pitchers to have won at least 10 games the past eight seasons. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and Pedro Martinez are the others.

Mercedes' distinction came last season, when he survived a botched roster move to lead the American League with 11 second-half wins and the Orioles with 14 overall.

Hargrove projected him as his Opening Day pitcher two weeks before Christmas, days before the Orioles signed Hentgen to a two-year contract.

"A lot of times, there are clear-cut choices," said Hargrove. "Obviously, if Mike Mussina were here, he'd be the guy. When there isn't a clear-cut choice, I think Opening Day is usually an honor. I think you reward people who have done things in this game that nobody else has done.

"I certainly think Pat Hentgen fits the bill."

Hentgen's standing was a poorly kept secret. Hargrove said he "toyed" with the idea of appointing Mercedes No. 1 starter, but Hentgen's work schedule has pointed toward April 2 since the first exhibition game. He finished last season 15-12 with a 4.72 ERA.

"It's an honor to start Opening Day," said Hentgen, who gained similar recognition in 1997 and 1999 with Toronto. "To me, it's a nice thing. I appreciate it."

The Orioles face internal haggling over at least two spots on what Hargrove yesterday projected will be an 11-man staff to open the season.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift will have input into the roster's composition and is known to be an advocate for reliever Jorge Julio and possible swingman Willis Roberts.

Hargrove may be leaning toward a more experienced right-handed mix.

"Nothing has been decided on," said Hargrove, adding that final decisions wouldn't be made until Saturday in Atlanta. "Everything has been discussed and re-discussed."

How Mercedes bounced from Opening Day candidate to No. 4 is one of this camp's most intriguing stories. Because the 30-year-old right-hander and Hentgen are control pitchers who rely heavily on changing speeds, Hargrove thought it best to position power arm Sidney Ponson between them.

Hargrove isn't alone in separating pitchers of similar styles. However, Mercedes then objected to the No. 3 role because of superstition.

He was the Milwaukee Brewers' No. 3 starter in 1998 when he suffered a rotator cuff tear while running bases and believes the connection more than coincidence. Hargrove granted his wish to be dropped to No. 4 by bumping Jason Johnson to No. 3.

"I've been hurt so much that I don't want to even think about it," said Mercedes, who abstains from the number at all times. "I didn't know if I was No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. But now it comes close to making a decision. I told them so they have time to play around and set things up. I really don't feel comfortable over there. Things happen sometimes you never forget. That's the bottom line."

Mercedes has had the slightly stronger spring, going 2-1 with a 4.95 ERA, compared with Hentgen's 0-2 mark accompanied by a 5.21 ERA. However, Hentgen also won 11 games from last June 11 through the end of the season with the St. Louis Cardinals.

"It's not a big deal at all," Mercedes said. "I want to pitch every five days. I want to do my job most of my time when I go out there. I would like to do my job every single time, but that's not going to happen. I hope I win 20 games. I hope everybody wins 20 games."

Mercedes shies from stating goals for this season. The beneficiary of generous offensive support last season - a fact the club used to beat him in arbitration last month - he also watched Mussina and Ponson endure a drought.

"You can't say what's going to happen tomorrow," he said.

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