FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles bumped last year's Opening Day starter, Rodrigo Lopez, to the bullpen yesterday to make room in the rotation for their hottest pitcher of spring training.
Erik Bedard, a rookie left-hander who is less than two years removed from major reconstructive elbow surgery, went to the manager's office expecting to be cut and found out he had been named the team's No. 5 starter.
"It was a very difficult decision to make," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "The kid [Bedard] made a case for himself this spring, not that Rodrigo did not by any stretch. I just feel we're a stronger club going this way."
The decision means the Orioles will open the season with four starters in their rotation who have never pitched a full season in the majors. In order, after Opening Night starter Sidney Ponson, it will be Eric DuBose, Kurt Ainsworth, Matt Riley and Bedard.
DuBose, Riley and Bedard also give the Orioles three left-handers in their rotation, a rarity, especially in the American League East, where the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have none. In fact, there are only two other left-handed starters in the entire division, the Toronto Blue Jays' Ted Lilly and Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Mark Hendrickson.
"We talked to the manager and the coaching staff, and they feel very good about the way our rotation sets up," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "We also like the way it affects our bullpen."
Lopez will start the season in long relief, but Mazzilli said he also could use him in late-game situations. It's the same role Lopez had to start the 2002 season, when he eventually joined the rotation and went 15-9 to finish runner-up in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
But after all the success he had as a rookie, Lopez put together a disappointing season last year, going 7-10 with a 5.82 ERA. This spring, he went 2-2 with a 3.79 ERA in five appearances spanning 19 innings. The Orioles were concerned about his lack of consistency.
Lopez said he was experimenting with his pitches early in camp, but he made a strong statement Sunday, when he held the New York Mets to one unearned run over seven innings.
"I was disappointed with the decision," Lopez said. "I think I do my job as a starter, and I did it good enough. That's all I can say."
Bedard won't start the season on the 25-man roster, but he will be called up to make the April 10 start at Tampa Bay. The Orioles are off the first three Mondays of April, which will allow them to skip the fifth spot in the rotation and keep Ponson on regular rest.
To keep Bedard sharp, the Orioles will have him pitch in a Triple-A spring training game Sunday, while the rest of the club is starting the season in Baltimore. They will start the season with a seven-man bullpen, and when Bedard joins the roster, Lopez or right-handed reliever Rick Bauer could get shipped to Triple-A Ottawa.
"We're not going to make that decision right now," Beattie said.
Mazzilli said the decision to take Bedard over Lopez didn't come down to one or two starts. The Orioles actually came to camp expecting Bedard to open the season in Ottawa.
On March 13, Mazzilli said he was expecting to start the season with Ponson, Lopez, DuBose and Ainsworth as his top four starters, but he did caution it was subject to change.
Bedard, 25, was the organization's top pitching prospect until he injured his left elbow in 2002. He got promoted from Double-A Bowie to the big leagues that April and posted a 13.50 ERA in two brief relief appearances.
Two months later, he went past his pitch count during a start for Bowie and had to leave the game with pain in the elbow. He underwent the Tommy John ligament-transplant procedure in September 2002.
After a swift recovery, he made six minor league starts late last season, but none above Single-A. The Orioles let him cut it loose this spring, and the more Bedard pitched, the better he did. He posted a 2.04 ERA and held opponents to a .200 batting average.
On Saturday night, Bedard dazzled with six scoreless innings against the defending world champion Florida Marlins. He allowed just two hits and posted nine strikeouts.
"I look not so much at what he did, but the way he handled things, his composure on the mound for a young kid," Mazzilli said. "He didn't seem rattled, he liked to pitch inside, he threw the breaking ball at any time, 2-0, 3-2. He had confidence in that.
"I asked umpires about him. You do your homework. `Do you like him? Is his ball moving?' And I got good feedback from umpires as well."
Bedard, who lives just outside Ottawa, had said he was hoping not to get sent home this season. After his visit to the manager's office, he was pleasantly surprised.
"I'm real excited, but I guess it doesn't show," he said. "I never show emotion, but it is a pretty good feeling."
1. Sidney Ponson
He opened last season as the team's No. 4 starter
MLB games pitched: 177
W-L ERA BB K
58-65 4.54 366 687
2. Eric DuBose
Opponents hit .222 off him last season.
MLB games pitched: 21
W-L ERA BB K
3-6 3.73 26 48
3. Kurt Ainsworth
Strong spring training proved his right shoulder is healthy.
MLB games pitched: 22
W-L ERA BB K
6-7 3.75 41 70
4. Matt Riley
He wants to build on two impressive starts last September.
MLB games pitched: 5
W-L ERA BB K
1-0 4.71 18 14
5. Erik Bedard
Team expected him to start the season at Triple-A Ottawa.
MLB games pitched: 2
W-L ERA BB K
0-0 13.50 0 1