Helling could be closing in

Orioles notebook

He allows two earned runs in six innings in pursuit of final spot in rotation


March 24, 2003|By Roch Kubatko and Joe Christensen | Roch Kubatko and Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- If Jason Johnson is, indeed, part of the Orioles' rotation for the 2003 season, then Rick Helling and Pat Hentgen are left to compete for one spot. Helling appeared to state his case a little louder yesterday, even with a performance that left him dissatisfied.

Facing the Montreal Expos, Helling permitted two earned runs over six innings in a 3-0 loss. The game was halted in the eighth because of rain.

Manager Mike Hargrove indicated before Saturday's game that Johnson would be counted among the starters, though he couched it after the right-hander allowed six runs in the first inning and seven overall. "As of now," Hargrove said, "he's in the rotation."

Helling is trying to join him. Signed to a minor-league contract, he has allowed nine earned runs in 23 2/3 innings for a 3.43 ERA. Hentgen, who starts today in Fort Myers, Fla., is carrying an 8.36 ERA in 14 innings.

"I would think with the spring I've had, I'd make most teams' rotations. I don't think I've done anything to hurt myself," Helling said.

Said Hargrove: "He didn't hurt himself, and he didn't help himself."

One of the runs off Helling yesterday was unearned, but he complained after the game of poor mechanics and the inability to finish his pitches. He allowed six hits, hit two batters and committed an error.

"That was the worst I've thrown so far," he said. "I didn't have the command I've had all spring. I was kind of all over the place. But on the other hand, I was able to work pretty well considering. That's kind of my mantra. I'm going to have days like this. I'll try to do what I did today and battle through it and make the best of it."

Hentgen is recovered from ligament-transplant surgery in his right elbow, which limited him to four starts last season. Health isn't an issue. It's all the runners reaching base against him -- and the ground he must make up against Helling.

"I don't worry about things I don't have any control over," Hentgen said. "I learned that a long time ago. I just worry about pitching, getting people out. I don't make those decisions."

Said Helling: "It's going to be a hard decision. Both Pat and I have had a lot of success starting in the big leagues. It's their decision. There's no reason for me to worry about it or try to do anything extra. The reason they brought me here was because of what I've done in the past. There's no reason for me to come in here and try to do something different."

In his last start, Hentgen threw 67 pitches over six innings in a Triple-A game at the minor-league complex in Sarasota, Fla. He allowed one run and didn't walk anybody -- stats that aren't included in the Orioles' spring tally.

"Each time out I'm building more strength," he said.

Unless the Orioles make a trade, Hentgen could wind up in the bullpen. He hasn't been a reliever since 1993, three years before winning the Cy Young Award.

"There's no adjustment," he said. "You just come to the park ready to pitch every day, vs. knowing when you're going to pitch and having a routine. But I work for the Orioles. Whatever they want me to do, I'll do."

Vaughn signing unlikely

When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays released Greg Vaughn on Saturday, some Orioles officials figured he was at least worth a consideration. By yesterday, however, the consensus was clear -- the Orioles won't be adding Vaughn any time soon.

With B.J. Surhoff and Marty Cordova expected to platoon in left field and Larry Bigbie and Jack Cust waiting in the wings, the Orioles have nowhere to put Vaughn.

They're still looking for a middle-of-the-order power presence, and Vaughn is a former 50-homer hitter, but the Orioles place an emphasis on former.

Vaughn, 37, hit .163 with eight home runs last year and is batting .217 this spring. One scout who has watched Vaughn this spring said, "He still looks lost at the plate."

When balk isn't a balk

Helling and Hargrove argued a balk call with plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, who didn't provide an immediate explanation. But at least he didn't toss Hargrove, who began to walk toward the dugout before returning to Dreckman and prolonging the exchange.

"It wasn't a balk, and it cost us two runs," Hargrove said. "But it's spring training, so I'll give him that one. If it had been a regular-season game, I probably would not have gotten to see the end of it."

With runners on the corners in the second inning, Helling moved toward third base before throwing to first, where he got Jose Macias in a rundown. Dreckman signaled for the balk, which allowed Wil Cordero to score. Macias went to second, and he scored on a stolen base and Tony Batista's error.

"He said I didn't step toward third," said Helling, who spoke with Dreckman on the field after his final inning. "It's not a balk, though. That move never works. Well, it worked and it freaked some people out and they called a balk."

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