OKLAHOMA CITY - Bruce Chen threw five more scoreless innings last night, this time against the regular-season lineup of the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Yet his sterling performance didn't make a difference in his quest to make the starting rotation.
Before the game, Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli took Chen, 27, aside and told him he had already won the club's vacant fifth starter spot no matter what he did on the mound yesterday.
"I am very happy," Chen said. "I came to spring training and worked real hard and wanted to show them I could help them win. It's a good opportunity."
Chen, who allowed just five hits and no runs in 14 2/3 innings this spring, made eight appearances (seven starts) with the Orioles last year and posted a 3.02 ERA. He said his goal was just to keep that momentum going in March and remain with the big league club when it broke camp. Now he'll be at the back of a rotation that includes, in order, Rodrigo Lopez, Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Sidney Ponson.
Once the jewel of the pitching-rich Atlanta Braves' system, Chen spent most of last season in the minors before being recalled by the Orioles last August. They are his eighth big league team since 2000.
"He's learned how to pitch," Mazzilli said. "He bounced around early on in his career and now he's learned to pitch and not throw. And I've been impressed with him."
Mazzilli wouldn't say whether the proclamation means Rick Bauer, Chen's stiffest competition for the rotation, would make the team as a reliever or be sent to Triple-A to start. That decision, he said, will be announced today. The team's 25-man roster must be set by midnight.
So the handful of players that were in limbo stayed that way.
"It is a little bit frustrating," said utility infielder Enrique Wilson, who is competing with Chris Gomez for the club's final bench spot. "I hoped they would have said something to me; that way I can see if I can get picked up by somebody else."
In theory, the Orioles have 28 candidates left in camp and three open roster spots: utility infielder and two bullpen slots.
In reality, however, there are only a few players whose immediate futures are uncertain, and most are veterans signed to minor league deals.
Mazzilli has praised Bauer (5.66 ERA) all spring, even after Thursday's start when Bauer and a shaky Orioles defense allowed five runs in four innings. If he goes to the bullpen, then there are only two spots available for right-handed relievers Jay Witasick (5.06 ERA) and Todd Williams (0.00) and left-hander John Parrish (0.74).
Parrish has a minor league option remaining, but pitched well in 2004 and this spring. Since he is likely in, either Williams or Witasick likely would be placed on waivers - assuming no trades are made.
If the club had announced its final moves earlier, players on the bubble would have had a better chance to sign elsewhere. But then the Orioles would be left with fewer options if hit with late injuries, said club executive vice president Jim Beattie.
"It's a tough situation," he said. "It's not a particularly fair situation for those guys, but at the same time it's not necessarily very different anywhere else.
"In the end, you want to try to be fair to those guys for what they are trying to do for their careers," Beattie said. "But it is our responsibility to really give us the strongest club we can coming out of spring training."
Both Gomez and Wilson, who have each hit over .300 this spring, said they would have no interest in heading to Triple-A Ottawa if they don't make Baltimore's roster.
"I don't see myself going to the minor leagues," said Gomez, 33, who, unlike Wilson, 31, is signed to a major league deal. "I'd probably go home first."
NOTES: An MRI taken Thursday on Melvin Mora's right hand was negative, and he likely will join the team tomorrow in Philadelphia, Mazzilli said. He was hit by a pitch during Wednesday's game against the Cardinals.
According to a column in yesterday's Oklahoman newspaper, the New York Yankees were approached about playing in the two-day exhibition series here this week. They reportedly wanted $1.5 million. Instead, Oklahoma City landed the Cardinals and Orioles for $200,000 each, plus lodging and transportation.
A half-dozen members of Oklahoma State's three-time national champion Division I wrestling team met with several Orioles and Cardinals yesterday. Reliever Steve Kline, who helps coach wrestling in Lewisburg, Pa., during the offseason, showed the wrestlers around.