Young starters provide relief

ORIOLES FOCUS

April 11, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

There is no such thing as a must-win baseball game in April ... or so they say.

So why did everybody in the Orioles' clubhouse have that curious look of relief and satisfaction after Thursday night's 13-inning victory over the Boston Red Sox salvaged a split of the four-game season-opening series?

OK, maybe it wasn't a win-or-else situation, but the Orioles needed something to bridge the three-game credibility gap between Sidney Ponson's first two regular-season starts.

Eric DuBose pitched adequately Tuesday, but his performance only highlighted the difference between the Orioles and the well-heeled Red Sox, whose No. 2 starter - Curt Schilling - might be the most overpowering pitcher in the American League.

Kurt Ainsworth crumbled after the club's defensive meltdown in the second inning of Wednesday night's game, leaving left-hander Matt Riley with the task of salvaging the first go-round of the fresh young arms in the Orioles' unquestionably questionable rotation.

Mission accomplished. Riley didn't win the game - rejuvenated long reliever Rodrigo Lopez would get the decision nearly two hours later - but he turned in a quality start and helped get the Orioles even in a long series against one of the teams that is supposed to look down on them this year.

Riley also sent the message that was obscured by Wednesday's ugly loss: The young guys might be green, but they aren't scared.

DuBose looked like he was walking a tightrope Tuesday afternoon, and that appearance was not deceiving. He seemed to be on the brink of disaster on several occasions, only to collect himself and keep the Orioles in the game.

Ainsworth was a slightly different story, though it wasn't the Red Sox's batting order that rattled him in the second inning Wednesday. He came unglued after a chain of strange events that allowed the Red Sox to make the third out three extra times. If it's any consolation, Pedro Martinez would have handled the situation the same way.

Nobody really knew what to expect from Riley, who has matured quite a bit since the days when his youthful indiscretions threatened to turn him into one of those minor league supernovas who disappear in a burst of unfulfilled promise.

He has come back from arm surgery to re-establish himself as a legitimate (albeit slightly older at 24) prospect who clearly has the ability to become a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy. Maybe more. His performance Thursday showed he just might have the mental toughness to endure a long season that is certain to include its share of ugly evenings.

The Orioles still may come to regret their inability - and apparent reluctance - to acquire one more veteran starter to anchor the rotation, but the Red Sox series showed that the baseball operations team was not delusional when it insisted this spring that the club had enough young pitching talent to be reasonably competitive in the toughest division in baseball.

It's early, of course. Rookie Erik Bedard joined the rotation yesterday, but some scouts who followed the club in Florida believe he has the talent and the makeup to be the best of the bunch.

Still, it is highly unlikely that all four of the Orioles' young pitchers will be in the rotation all year. The team would have to consider the season a big developmental success if two of the four made 30 starts and won 10 games or more.

So far, so good.

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