First things first, Roberts ready for his starting debut

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

With Ponson on DL, pitcher gets the call tomorrow against Rays

April 19, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The professional life of Orioles pitcher Willis Roberts keeps throwing him a curve. Some have buckled his knees. None has broken him.

The latest has made him a starter again.

Released by the Cincinnati Reds after last season, Roberts became a six-year, minor-league free agent. Now, he's less than 48 hours from making his first major-league start, when the Orioles begin a three-game series in Tampa. He's replacing Sidney Ponson, who went on the disabled list with tendinitis in his right elbow.

The Orioles signed Roberts in November, watched him blow away hitters in the Dominican Winter League and gave him a chance to earn a spot in their rotation this spring. He failed despite allowing only five earned runs in 20 innings, walking seven, striking out 23 and holding opponents to a .197 batting average.

Those numbers were good enough to put him in the bullpen, where he's 1-0 with a 1.04 ERA in six appearances covering 8 2/3 innings. He's struck out 14.

He'd still be in the bullpen if not for Ponson's injury. Not long ago, manager Mike Hargrove suggested that Roberts could one day become a closer, though he wasn't suggesting that Ryan Kohlmeier's job was in jeopardy. Roberts had been pegged for long-relief duty going into the season, but began entering games in the later innings. A redefined role changed again when Hargrove announced him as tomorrow's starter against the Devil Rays.

"I'm not even thinking about it," said Roberts, 25, who was 6-1 with a 1.66 ERA this winter with Estrellas. "I'm relaxed. I'll do the same things as when I'm in the bullpen. I won't change anything."

It's rare that a day passes when Hargrove isn't asked about whether Roberts projects as a starter or reliever, and if it's the bullpen, in what capacity. "Situations dictate certain things," Hargrove said. "Willis has started throughout his career. We looked at him in spring training as a starter and out of the bullpen and settled on him being in the bullpen and [Chuck] McElroy starting. Now we have a chance to give him a start. If he pitches real well Friday, I like him as a starter."

If he doesn't, Hargrove could give Ponson's next turn to someone else. There are no promises attached to Roberts' first outing.

"I'm comfortable in any role," Roberts said.

Return of Segui

David Segui returned to the lineup after missing three straight games with a strained right hamstring. He again was the designated hitter, the same role he has filled in four of his past five appearances.

Rookie Jay Gibbons made his second start at first base. Chris Richard has been used there five times, and Jeff Conine once.

Hargrove kept Greg Myers in the lineup by starting him behind the plate. Myers had been the DH the past two games.

Hargrove said Segui was healthy enough to play in the field for four or five straight games if needed. "Will he? I don't know. But he could."

Second career?

The "Sports Illustrated for Women" swimsuit edition includes outfielder Brady Anderson, who posed for photos at Key Biscayne during a break in spring training. Other athletes from various sports also are featured.

Anderson said he wore three different suits, chosen by his girlfriend, during a shoot that lasted about two hours and brought no complaints from the Orioles' leadoff hitter. Some were taken with him in the water, others as he reclined on the beach.

What about getting paid?

"I got a free suit," he said.

Pleasant surprise

Impressing club officials with the velocity on his fastball, the development of his off-speed pitches and his willingness to take instruction, Chad Paronto almost forced the Orioles to make room for him in the bullpen before being cut late in spring training.

Yesterday, they found a spot for him there, with space created when Roberts moved into the rotation as Ponson's replacement.

Ponson went on the disabled list before Tuesday's game with tendinitis in his right elbow. Paronto went from Triple-A Rochester to his first big-league assignment.

The news caught him by surprise - and at his home in Pittsfield, Mass. Paronto had made the four-hour drive from Rochester on Tuesday before finding out about his promotion.

"When I got there, my wife was like, `You got called up to the big leagues.' I didn't have anything with me because I was just going to stay there for the night. I only had the essentials," he said, before finishing up last nigh's game with two scoreless innings.

"I came here to Baltimore with no baseball stuff. I had to go to the mall and buy stuff for my suit so I could travel tomorrow. But it's a problem I don't mind having."

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