TORONTO - Orioles manager Mike Hargrove confirmed yesterday that pitcher Willis Roberts is returning to the bullpen, where he eventually could evolve into the closer while Calvin Maduro remains in the rotation indefinitely.
Roberts began the season in a relief role before making his first start on April 20. The rookie won his first four decisions, but entered last night 7-8 with a 5.09 ERA in 25 games.
Before coming on in the eighth inning last night, he hadn't pitched since last Saturday in Anaheim, when he collapsed on the mound and needed a stretcher to leave the field. The rust was evident as he hit the first batter he faced and allowed a single and a walk, but he wriggled out of the inning without a run. Soreness in his right leg had caused Roberts to be skipped in the rotation, with Maduro taking his turn Thursday, allowing three runs in seven innings in a 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay.
"It's not a demotion at all. It's absolutely not a demotion. I can't characterize it any stronger than that," Hargrove said.
"We're looking out for his future and for the needs of the club, and his ability to have a long career and make a lot of money and help the club be successful."
While getting acclimated to the change, Roberts will work in the back end of the bullpen. Left-hander Buddy Groom has emerged as the closer, with 10 saves. This week's trade of Mike Trombley to the Los Angeles Dodgers presents Roberts with opportunities in the ninth inning, especially as the Orioles continue to use the last two months to further evaluate their younger players.
"Whether he becomes the closer at some point or time remains to be seen," Hargrove said, "but we certainly think that he has the ability somewhere along the line to be able to do that. We intend to find that out. And we can always put him back in the rotation.
"We're fairly committed to this, but obviously if things start to crater in that direction, we'll make adjustments. But this is something we feel is the correct move to make with Willis right now. And in no way are we unhappy with what Buddy Groom has been doing in that role. We're very happy with him, but closers don't grow on trees. You can't have enough of them."
The Orioles have been intrigued by Roberts' potential as a late-inning specialist since signing him as a minor-league free agent and watching him throw in spring training. They've seen his fastball, clocked between 94 and 98 mph when pitching in relief, dip to 91 when he starts.
"You see most starting pitchers do that. When you're throwing pitches 120 times, you're not going to see 98 every inning," said Hargrove, who made a similar move with Jose Mesa in 1995 while managing the Cleveland Indians, though it came at the beginning of the season rather than the second half.
"Whether he can throw 96, 97, 98 all the time remains to be seen, but he's certainly a power pitcher who has two major out pitches - his fastball and split. And he's got a good slider, too. He has the stuff that says he has a chance to be a closer, and to be a good closer. We want to find that out."
Knowing that Pat Hentgen won't return this season from a sprained elbow ligament, the Orioles will use Maduro as a means to experiment with Roberts in the bullpen. Maduro has allowed five runs in 13 2/3 innings in his two starts.
The Orioles could remain in the market for a closer this winter, but also have in-house options in Roberts and Jorge Julio. Hargrove hopes to have someone established in the role before spring training.
Batista's relaxed return
Tony Batista returned to Toronto yesterday a more relaxed player than the one who switched SkyDome clubhouses after the Orioles claimed him off waivers from the Blue Jays on June 25. He looked like just another visiting player, which is how he preferred it.
"I'm more comfortable, my mind is more clear. I'm getting used to it," he said.
"I feel much better. I think I'm more prepared."
Batista punctuated his farewell to SkyDome on June 27 with a tie-breaking home run off Esteban Loaiza in the sixth inning. The Orioles added two more runs in the inning in a 7-3 victory.
Going 1-for-4 last night, Batista is batting .304 (17-for-56) with three homers and six RBIs in his last 14 games.
"I'm getting prepared better," he said. "It's been a month since that happened. I think I'm hitting much better. My numbers are better. We'll see what happens at the end of the season."
Batista made his fifth consecutive start last night, and sixth in seven games. "I've been trying to get him more regular at-bats," Hargrove said.
Sorry to miss you
The Orioles don't have Joey Hamilton to push around anymore. At least not in this series.
Hamilton, 30, was scheduled to pitch tonight until given his outright release yesterday. That's bad timing for the Orioles, who scored 11 runs off him in two starts this season covering 10 2/3 innings.
Hamilton gave up four homers in five innings of a June 19 loss at Camden Yards, including two by David Segui. Jay Gibbons had two homers off him, the other coming on June 25 at Skydome, when Hamilton allowed seven runs and 11 hits in 5 2/3 innings. He was 5-8 with a 5.89 ERA in 22 starts.
One player grimaced when told of Hamilton's release. "Oh man, I wanted to see that guy," he said.
Brandon Lyon, 21, had his contract purchased from Triple-A Syracuse and will make his first major-league start tonight. He was 5-3 with a 3.69 ERA at Syracuse, including two complete games. Lyon opened the season at Double-A Tennessee, going 5-0 with a 3.68 ERA in nine starts.
The Blue Jays also purchased infielder Felipe Lopez's contract and optioned infielder Luis Lopez to Syracuse.