No rotation set, yet clock ticks

With options dwindling, Trembley says he'll hold out till 'last minute'

March 23, 2009|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

JUPITER, Fla. -The clock continues to run down on the Orioles and their star-crossed attempt to assemble a representative starting rotation by Opening Day, but manager Dave Trembley refuses to blink.

Maybe his eyes are kept locked in the open position so he doesn't miss it if something suddenly goes right.

The Orioles have spent the weekend trying to clarify the unsettled pitching situation, but it's still almost impossible to predict what the rotation might look like when they break camp less than two weeks from now. They narrowed the field when they optioned prospect Brad Bergesen to Triple-A Norfolk on Saturday, but that move raised more questions than it answered. They sent out Rich Hill to pitch against hitters for the first time in nearly a month yesterday and came away more convinced than ever that he won't be ready to start the season on time.

"I'll hold out until the last minute," Trembley said after yesterday's 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium. "I don't have to say it. It's right there. We're not going to do the wrong thing and let our young guys pitch before their time."

That was part of the explanation on Bergesen, who was the steadiest starting pitcher in camp when he was dropped from consideration for the 25-man Opening Day roster. The club had given every indication he was on the verge of making the team, especially with all the uncertainty elsewhere on the pitching staff, but the decision was based on the desire not to rush him and the need to have him off the roster for 10 days in case it became necessary to call him back quickly.

"He's going to pitch for us," Trembley said, "but it's probably not going to happen on April 6."

It wasn't anything Bergesen failed to do. He had a steady spring and exhibited a level of maturity that impressed Trembley and the rest of the coaching staff. But though he was the team's Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season, he has not pitched above the Double-A level, and he would have been staring down some frightening American League East lineups during the early weeks of the season.

The tough April schedule - and Hill's slow return from elbow soreness - has prompted Trembley to again focus on veteran Mark Hendrickson, who seemed targeted for the bullpen until so many dominoes fell that there is no other left-handed option for the rotation. He pitched four innings and gave up three runs (two earned) yesterday, which isn't exactly going to make anybody forget Sandy Koufax but was adequate to get Hendrickson's pitch count to where it needs to be at this point in training camp.

"The first inning, I maybe wasn't as sharp with some of my off-speed pitches," Hendrickson said, "but I felt I made a 20-pitch jump from where I was. I felt good. I felt strong. ... I think the gauge for myself would be five innings and 75 pitches. Early in the season, it's not so much about pitch count as it is about how much you work in between. I'm preparing to start. That's the way I approach it. I felt stronger today."

Right-hander Hayden Penn, who was originally scheduled to start yesterday, pitched two innings of relief and gave up one run. Trembley continues to say Penn has a chance to stretch and be a starter, but it doesn't look as if he is being steered in that direction. The way he is being used makes him look like a potential middle reliever, perhaps holding space while Jim Johnson recovers from tendinitis.

"We need to pitch him to stretch him out a little bit and see what happens," Trembley said. "I understand what the boundaries are on him, as far as his option situation, and other people. I'm trying to do everything I can to cover all the parameters."

The outlook, however, remains pretty much the same as it has been for weeks. The Orioles will get No. 1 starter Jeremy Guthrie back in a day or two, but he has pitched only nine innings this spring, so he also has some catching up to do. Koji Uehara threw 35 pitches in a batting practice workout yesterday and probably will pitch tomorrow against the Washington Nationals, but his status also remains uncertain.

Trembley has managed to stay positive throughout, but the clock keeps ticking and the answers remain elusive. Maybe he'll know more in a few days. Maybe he'll know less.

Maybe he won't really know until April 6, which is suddenly right around the corner.

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