Jays seek weekend lift from pair of ex-O's arms

Towers, Hentgen to start back-to-back vs. old team

April 16, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - The Orioles will put their future on display in the three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays that opens tonight at SkyDome. They can only hope that their past doesn't come back to haunt them.

Former Orioles prospect Josh Towers is scheduled to make his first start of the season tomorrow night against Kurt Ainsworth, and recently departed right-hander Pat Hentgen will face the Orioles' Eric DuBose in the series finale Sunday. Neither pitcher has much of an ax to grind against his former team, but each has something to prove this weekend.

Hentgen, who jumped back to the Blue Jays last winter after the Orioles failed to exercise their option to add a fourth year to his contract, has struggled all spring to regain the command that made him the Orioles' most effective pitcher during the second half of the 2003 season - and convinced the Blue Jays that he had made a successful comeback from Tommy John elbow reconstruction.

"I have to keep grinding and plugging away," Hentgen said this week. "Last year, I proved to myself that I could get by with what I have. It's just a matter of being more of a finesse-type pitcher.

"I was never really a power pitcher, but I relied mostly on my fastball and curveball. I rely on four pitches now, but when you only have command of two of them, it's difficult, and when you can command only one, it's more difficult."

He struggled in each of his first two regular-season starts, giving up 11 runs (seven earned) over 8 2/3 innings (7.27 ERA) in home-and-home appearances against the Detroit Tigers, but manager Carlos Tosca was encouraged by his improved velocity in his start Tuesday at Comerica Park.

"The one encouraging thing about [Tuesday] night, he hit 88 and 89 [mph] on the gun," Tosca said. "Because of his age, it's going to take a couple more starts. Right now, the ball isn't doing a whole lot in the strike zone for him."

The Orioles refused the option because they did not want to guarantee Hentgen, 35, more than $4 million after three years of limited availability, but they had hoped to re-sign him. Instead, he took advantage of free agency to return to the place where he established himself as one of the American League's premier starting pitchers.

No hard feelings on either side.

"It's game on," Hentgen said. I've pitched against the Orioles for the bulk of my career, although the last three years I spent with them were great," Hentgen said. It's always a little weird pitching against your old teammates."

Towers expected to be part of the pitching youth movement in Baltimore, and he conveys a slight air of regret when he talks about the way the Orioles soured on him after a frustrating 2002 season.

"I've got to thank them for a lot of things," Towers said. "I would have liked to stay there, but they didn't have any use for me. But I'm actually glad I got to experience a different organization."

Towers, 27, was projected to be in the Orioles' rotation in 2002, but went winless in both the majors (0-3) and at Triple-A Rochester (0-9) before the organization gave up on him and the Blue Jays signed him as a minor league free agent. He returned to the major leagues midway through last season and won eight of nine decisions to force his way into the club's pitching plans for 2004.

"Based on the three starts I had there in 2002, obviously I didn't pitch well," Towers said. "But we scored about three runs in those games. These guys [the Blue Jays] averaged 6.5 runs for me last year. It's a big difference. It makes it easier to pitch."

If he had a score to settle with the Orioles, he did that in September, when he set a career high with nine strikeouts in a 4-2 victory at SkyDome.

"It was pretty neat ... pretty cool," Towers said. "Since then, I haven't really thought about it. I'm trying to do my best here."

Towers is more Jamie Moyer than Roger Clemens, so he has to have near-perfect command to win. That might explain his inconsistent performance over the past several years.

"I hope I'm in a transitional stage," Towers said. "I have to locate my pitches and get the hitters to hit my pitch. I can't pitch over the middle of the plate - nobody can, really - but since I don't have the greatest stuff, I can't do that. Hopefully, the more experience I get and the more innings I pitch, I'll be better at setting up my pitches, and I won't have to be perfect all the time."

How sharp he will be tomorrow night is an open question, because he has not pitched in a game since spring training, but Tosca indicated his place at the end of the Blue Jays' rotation is secure.

Hentgen is safe for the moment, too. The Blue Jays were on the wrong end of one of his strongest performances last year, so Tosca knows what the veteran right-hander can do when he is able to put the ball where he wants it.

"He's not the same guy right now, but I'm certain that it will come," Tosca said. "I don't have any doubts."

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