O's starters not nervous, just young and relentless

DuBose and company eager to make mark

April 06, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

OK, Orioles, nice opening act.

Now clear the stage, Sidney Ponson, you old graybeard.

It's time to bring on the Kiddie Corps.

After watching Ponson out-pitch Pedro Martinez on Opening Night, the Orioles are headed straight to the center of everyone's skepticism this afternoon, when left-hander Eric DuBose takes the mound opposite the No. 2 pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.

Some guy named Curt Schilling.

When Schilling and DuBose, 27, are finished, it'll be Kurt Ainsworth, 25, opposite Derek Lowe tomorrow night. And then Matt Riley, 24, against Tim Wakefield in Thursday's series finale.

Throw in Erik Bedard, 25, who will make his season debut Saturday at Tampa Bay, and the Orioles have four starters in their rotation who have 10 career major league victories. Combined.

That's 13 fewer wins than Schilling had himself in 2002, 11 years after the Orioles traded him to the Houston Astros. And that's 28 fewer wins than Lowe has put up the past two seasons combined for the Red Sox.

But if the skeptics thought the Orioles' young staff would be paralyzed by fear this week, they weren't sitting on the team bus from the airport to Camden Yards on Saturday night.

The way DuBose recalled, Riley leaned over to him and said, "Nervous?"

"Nah," DuBose said. "Just anxious."

Here's what people need to understand about this staff, DuBose said: Riley reached the big leagues in 1999, at age 20. Then he blew out his pitching elbow, and it took him four years to reach this point again.

Bedard reached the big leagues in 2002, at age 23, and succumbed to the same injury that season.

Ainsworth made the show in 2001, at age 22, and was in the San Francisco Giants' starting rotation last year until a freak broken-shoulder blade injury derailed his season.

And then there's DuBose, who is actually six months older than Ponson, 27, making him the oldest starter on the staff.

DuBose suffered one of the worst arm injuries a pitcher can have - a torn labrum and rotator cuff - which required major shoulder surgery in 2001. He was released by the Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians, and he nearly quit the game two years ago at Double-A Bowie until his wife, Emily, talked him out of it.

Kiddie Corps? To hear DuBose tell it, this quartet should be called the Perseverance Posse.

"We've got a lot of young guys, but we've got a lot of guys who have been through difficulties," DuBose said. "So I mean, it's not like we're just a bunch of fresh arms who are just fixin' to air it out. We all are very hungry, and we want to go out there and work hard to make a name for ourselves."

The Orioles haven't opened a season with five pitchers in their starting rotation under age 28 since 1968, when Tom Phoebus (26), Jim Hardin (24), Bruce Howard (25) and Dave McNally (25) made up the four-man rotation, with Dave Leonhard (26) getting spot start duty.

The '68 Orioles went 91-71, in a prelude to their run of three consecutive World Series berths.

When the Orioles set their rotation last week, they did so figuring this team could produce enough offense to overcome their young pitchers' mistakes. With Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez in the middle of their lineup now, they hope to have a lot of games like Sunday's 7-2 win.

"It's going to make the pitchers feel a lot more comfortable that they don't have to be quite so fine," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "They can be a little more aggressive, and I think that will help them become better pitchers."

So the experiment begins with DuBose, and that didn't happen by mere coincidence. He drew the No. 2 assignment based on a strong finish to last season and a solid spring that saw him go 2-2 with a 3.91 ERA.

Ainsworth was even better, posting a 2.20 spring ERA, but Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said he wanted to separate Ponson and Ainsworth, since they are the only two right-handers in the rotation.

"[DuBose] showed me in spring training that he was very capable of handling that role," Mazzilli said. "I like his poise and command on the mound, the way he's not afraid to throw his changeup and curveball in any count. And he's just been very consistent."

Five years ago, a manager would have never used those words to describe DuBose. Before the surgery, he was a completely different pitcher.

Oakland picked him in the first round of the 1997 draft, out of Mississippi State, and winced when he started experiencing shoulder pain in 1999.

"I was a power guy - fastball, curveball," DuBose said. "I didn't have a changeup. I threw a lot of pitches, walked a lot of guys and struck out a lot of guys. I really didn't know how to pitch."

Before the shoulder injuries, DuBose could throw his fastball 94 mph. These days, he's lucky if he hits 90 mph. But after the surgery, he developed a new bread-and-butter pitch - a changeup that has scouts comparing him to a young Jamie Moyer.

After some early struggles at Bowie in 2002, DuBose regained some shoulder strength from the surgery, and everything started falling into place.

Late last season, DuBose emerged as one of the Orioles' most dependable starters. He went just 3-5 in his 10 starts, but the team scored a total of 24 runs in those games, and he posted a respectable, 3.71 ERA.

"He never gets fazed by anything," Riley said. "It doesn't matter how bad the situation is. He keeps that bulldog face on and keeps coming at you."

Nervous? Nah, just eager.

Orioles today

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 3:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Red Sox's Curt Schilling (8-9, 2.95 in 2003) vs. Orioles' Eric DuBose (3-6, 3.79)

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