Roberts starts out on right O's foot, 6-3

He shuts out Rays for 5 in debut

Gibbons stars

April 21, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - One start won't necessarily determine Willis Roberts' future with the Orioles, just as his release from two organizations didn't discourage them from signing him in November. It does, however, give them lots to consider while reconstructing their rotation.

Vacating the bullpen for the first time in the majors, Roberts shut out Tampa Bay through five innings and waited as David Segui hit his first home run and closer Ryan Kohlmeier escaped another jam in the Orioles' 6-3 victory over the Devil Rays last night at Tropicana Field.

With Cal Ripken watching from the dugout, the Orioles won for only the fourth time in their past 12 games. Roberts gave up one run, on a sixth-inning double by Ben Grieve, and allowed five hits among 77 pitches that fell within the parameters loosely set by manager Mike Hargrove.

Mike Trombley began the seventh, when the Devil Rays scored twice but couldn't snatch the decision from Roberts (2-0). Kohlmeier put two runners on base in the ninth before striking out Greg Vaughn to end it.

The infield behind Roberts didn't include Ripken, who was held out of the lineup for the second time in three games. Jeff Conine started at third base, his first game in the field since April 11, when he became unavailable because of a sore right foot.

Hargrove contemplated not starting Ripken for a second straight day on Thursday before remembering that Cleveland's pitcher was a left-hander, rookie C. C. Sabathia. Ripken collected his second extra-base hit, a double down the left-field line, and also walked. Two pop-ups left his average at .140 in 43 at-bats.

It's uncertain whether he will remain on the bench today despite being healthy. The Devil Rays are starting another right-hander, Ryan Rupe, and Hargrove wouldn't commit to putting Ripken in the lineup.

"I don't know, probably," Hargrove said. "It's a day-by-day thing."

So is the process of evaluating the younger players on the 25-man roster. Rookie Jay Gibbons made another start at first base and ripped a bases-clearing double in the fourth inning. Chris Richard moved to center field, with Melvin Mora taking his .146 average to the bench, and contributed a run-scoring single. Mike Kinkade's modest streak of two consecutive starts ended last night, but he could return to the lineup today.

"I really want to play the kids more," Hargrove said. "We've got to find out if these guys can play. Hopefully we'll be able to get them more consistent at-bats."

Hargrove would like some consistency from his rotation, which possessed only one victory going into last night. Last year's leading winner, Jose Mercedes, is 0-3 with a 9.77 ERA in 15 2/3 innings. Sidney Ponson was 0-3 with a 6.62 ERA in 17 2/3 innings before going on the disabled list with elbow tendinitis.

Roberts, who took Ponson's place, didn't exceed five innings all spring. The longest he had gone this season was four innings on April 11, when he didn't allow a run and struck out seven in Boston to earn his first major-league win. His last appearance, against Cleveland on Tuesday, was confined to the eighth.

Taking this into account, Hargrove wasn't projecting Roberts beyond the fifth or sixth inning, with a pitch count somewhere between 75 and 90. "We'll look at it as he goes along," Hargrove said before the game. "We're going into it with a real open mind."

That's been the case with Roberts since the Orioles brought him to spring training. They've viewed him as a potential fifth starter, as a long reliever, as a late-inning specialist. His stuff is good enough to close, but there's a more pressing need for him in the rotation.

Ponson will miss at least one more start before he's eligible to return on May 1. Earlier this week, Hargrove said a decision hadn't been made whether Roberts would take that turn, as well. No promises were attached to this one. Roberts took care of that himself despite developing a small blister on his middle finger in the second inning.

"I wasn't nervous at all," he said. "I didn't change anything. I did the same things as when I'm in the bullpen. I was very relaxed, very comfortable."

He needed only 15 pitches to get through the first two innings, and that included singles by Gerald Williams and Vaughn in the first.

Williams laid down a bunt that Roberts fielded to the right of the mound, but his momentum made it impossible to produce an accurate throw. Vaughn lined a one-out single to left, but Williams was thrown out at third by Delino DeShields after hesitating at second.

The Devil Rays put another runner in scoring position in the third when Felix Martinez (4-for-4) singled with one out and moved up on a balk. Russ Johnson walked with two outs, and Roberts fell behind 2-0 to Vaughn. In one of the game's more critical moments, Roberts got Vaughn to foul off two pitches - the first off-speed - and unleashed a 95-mph fastball for a called third strike.

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