For starters, O's rotation throws off doubts

Only No. 5 up for grabs as first 4 please Mazzilli


March 14, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - No matter how optimistic the Orioles' decision makers tried to sound about their inexperienced starting pitching staff coming into spring training, there were numerous concerns.

Would Sidney Ponson respond to the challenge of being the undisputed ace? Would Rodrigo Lopez bounce back after struggling in the Mexican Winter League? Would Kurt Ainsworth be as good as advertised? Would Eric DuBose build upon last season's success? But three weeks from the season opener against the Boston Red Sox, the answers to those questions have been yes, yes, yes and yes.

Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said yesterday that Ponson, Lopez, Ainsworth and DuBose likely would comprise four-fifths of the starting rotation. Those pitchers are lined up to pitch in that order, every fifth day, right up until that opening four-game series against the Red Sox.

"I like what I see in those four guys, let's put it that way," Mazzilli said.

Perhaps an even more telling statement came from Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. Coming into camp, there was widespread speculation that this team would have to trade for another starting pitcher before the season started.

That speculation would have intensified quickly if Ponson, Lopez, Ainsworth or DuBose had struggled in their early spring starts. But it hasn't happened.

"I don't think we have to make a trade," Flanagan said.

Flanagan said the team's scouts have been studying every major league team, but for now there is no pressing need.

The Los Angeles Dodgers have made it known they are looking to upgrade their offense and are believed to be interested in Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston and right fielder Jay Gibbons. Major league sources also have said Dodgers left-hander Odalis Perez and right-hander Hideo Nomo could both be had in the right trade.

But Perez is making $5 million this season, and Nomo is making $9 million. At that price, the Orioles might be better off sticking with what they have.

Ponson has posted a 4.76 ERA in his two starts, but he looked very good on Tuesday against the St. Louis Cardinals. Today, he'll be pitching opposite Boston ace Pedro Martinez, in a preview of Opening Night.

Lopez has a 1.80 ERA, Ainsworth 2.84 and DuBose lowered his mark to 2.96 with four solid innings yesterday against the New York Mets.

Mazzilli is fairly certain about his top four starters, but the competition for the No. 5 spot is still wide-open.

Last week, Flanagan said the job was basically Matt Riley's to lose, but the youngster has struggled in his two appearances, posting a 9.00 ERA. Omar Daal, who has a 7.20 ERA, had a shaky first outing but came back strong Wednesday against Florida.

Right-handed reliever Rick Bauer was emerging as a legitimate starter candidate, but he got hit hard yesterday against the Mets. And Erik Bedard earned the victory Friday against Montreal with 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief.

"I'll tell you, the way they're pitching, they're making it a hard decision," Mazzilli said.

Flanagan said yesterday that the Orioles would likely start the season with 11 pitchers on their 25-man roster. That would mean five starters and a six-man bullpen. If the season started today, the bullpen would likely include Bauer, Jorge Julio, Mike DeJean and left-handers B.J. Ryan, Buddy Groom and John Parrish.

So far, new Orioles catcher Javy Lopez has been impressed with the pitching in camp. He spent all those years catching the stalwart Atlanta Braves' staff and came in wondering what to expect from his new pitchers.

"I don't call them inexperienced because they know what to do," Lopez said. "They've done an outstanding job."

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