Orioles reliever Steve Kline was supposed to be the left-handed setup man who passed a lead to the closer. He was told later that, because of his struggles, he'd be the first left-hander out of the bullpen, placed in situations that demanded less from him, where one mistake wouldn't necessarily cost the team a victory.
And what about now?
Pointing to his chest before a recent game, Kline whispered, "Starting rotation." He meant it as a joke, much like everything that comes out of his mouth. But does anyone in the bullpen really understand his role? B.J. Ryan is the undisputed closer, a man waiting for a slim lead to protect at a time when the Orioles have lost 18 of 22 going into tonight's series opener against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Camden Yards. However, the absence of a long reliever has forced the front office to make a roster move.
Executive vice president Jim Beattie said the Orioles will "fill that role" today. "We anticipate fixing it," Beattie said. "We're going to do something to help the situation."
Though Beattie wouldn't be specific, the Orioles seem prepared to bring up left-hander Eric DuBose from Double-A Bowie and put him in the rotation if Sidney Ponson goes on the disabled list with a strained right calf. A reliever will be added from the minors, possibly Aaron Rakers, who is closing at Triple-A Ottawa but can be extended.
Ponson might have gone to the bullpen if the Orioles had acquired a starter before the non-waiver trading deadline. Ponson and outfielder/first baseman B.J. Surhoff (groin) will be re-evaluated today before the team determines if they need to go on the disabled list.
Kline turned in three scoreless innings Saturday, only the third time he has gone that long since his rookie season in 1997. He also went 2 2/3 innings Tuesday, allowing two unearned runs.
"I don't think I've really done the left-handed specialist thing at all this year," he said. "I haven't just come in and faced one guy and left."
The extra work could get Kline rolling again, perhaps shaving more points off his 5.04 ERA. It also has been a necessity since Kline refused to accept a demotion to Bowie after the All-Star break, leading the club to designate James Baldwin for assignment.
The Texas Rangers claimed Baldwin, leaving the Orioles with a collection of short relievers - Ryan, Kline, Jorge Julio, Todd Williams, Jason Grimsley, Tim Byrdak and rookie Chris Ray. They've had to take turns being pushed farther than they're accustomed to, bailing out interim manager Sam Perlozzo when starters have left early.
"I kind of [messed] that up when they let J.B. go," Kline said. "He could give us four or five innings. Now, it's a job for Todd Williams or Chris Ray or whoever they want to put out there."
Ray was Bowie's closer before the Orioles purchased his contract June 13. He went a season-high 2 1/3 innings Wednesday and entered Saturday's game in the fourth.
Asked about his long reliever Sunday morning, interim manager Sam Perlozzo said it would have to be Williams. Was there another choice? Perlozzo hoped to avoid such a scenario, but when Ponson left injured in the third inning, Williams rushed into the game and allowed a home run to Kevin Mench.
"Once we lost J.B., I knew there was a possibility of this happening," Williams said. "We're ready. Everybody's kind of stepped up. But without having a defined long man, it's hard to have set roles."
Byrdak was next after Williams, and he allowed a three-run homer to former Oriole Gary Matthews.
"You've got to have Byrdak go through the lineup once and try to have Julio do the same," catcher Sal Fasano said. "Todd's starting to get a little more used to that long man role, but it's tough. The guys are trying. You can only run out of bullets so long."
The last two games in Texas proved to be especially challenging for Perlozzo. Cabrera lost his command after the first inning Saturday, and Ponson was injured the next day. That meant stringing together relievers to reach the end - both times with the Orioles losing.
"Two days in a row you're trying to do that," Perlozzo said. "When it happens back to back, you're afraid to use anybody. You know your closer's going to get in there, but you've got to have somebody to back him up if something goes wrong."
Perlozzo has inherited former manager Lee Mazzilli's bullpen. Players are eager to see how he handles it, deficiencies and all.
They questioned Mazzilli's patterns, believed he overused some pitchers and ignored others, most notably John Parrish, who made one appearance in almost a month between April and May. Two relievers said they warmed up 10 straight days or more. Mazzilli might not have lost the clubhouse before being fired last week, but he never seemed to have his relievers' complete trust and respect.
Asked how the bullpen might be handled under Perlozzo, Kline said, "I hope way different.