Uehara changes it up for Orioles

He returns with new pitch, gives rotation rare boost

March 25, 2009|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -The Orioles enjoyed something Tuesday that has been in short supply during the first five weeks of spring training.

Some positive results from the starting rotation.

Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara pitched a solid 3 2/3 innings against the Washington Nationals in his first competitive appearance since he strained his left hamstring covering first base in an exhibition game against the New York Mets on March 9. The Orioles lost for the seventh time in a row, 3-1, but nobody's going to remember their Grapefruit League record a month from now if Uehara settles in as the No. 2 starter.

"That was huge," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "We're counting on him to be out there every fifth day. It's a big boost for everybody."

Uehara gave up a run on three hits and struck out seven, even unveiling the new changeup he has been working on with Kranitz. He left the game after striking out the first two batters in the fourth because he was closing in on his pitch limit. He threw 57 pitches, 40 for strikes, and - best of all - got through it without any discomfort in his injured leg.

"I'm glad nothing happened," he said through interpreter Jiwon Bang.

He's not alone. The Orioles have been trying to piece together a healthy and adequate starting rotation since they opened training camp in mid-February, but there have been many more bad days than good ones. The injury to Uehara had added another element of uncertainty at a time when there were three spots undecided. His successful return has to be comforting for Kranitz and manager Dave Trembley, but the overall pitching situation still is much in doubt.

Uehara has said all along that he would be ready for the start of the regular season - and he said that again Tuesday. He was so focused on getting healthy, he barely noticed the encouraging results.

"I'm not really concerned about the content of what I threw," he said when he was asked to evaluate his performance, "so that's tough to answer."

The afternoon didn't start out particularly well. Nationals leadoff man Roger Bernadina opened the game with a solid triple into the right-field corner and - after Uehara struck out former Orioles infielder Alex Cintron - scored on a soft single by Kory Casto. Uehara settled down quickly, however, and retired 10 of the next 11 batters he faced.

"He threw the ball really well," Kranitz said. "I think early on he was just kind of testing his leg. As he went on, he felt better and got comfortable."

Uehara threw the changeup for the first time in the third inning, crossing up Bernadina and Cintron. Kranitz said he threw it three times, twice getting a swing-and-miss and once a foul ball. In theory, the pitch is supposed to make it more difficult for left-handed hitters to sit on Uehara's fastball. In reality, it seemed to do that even though he broke it out in a game only a few days after experimenting with it on the side.

"You had to like what Koji did today," Trembley said. "The first time he has thrown the changeup, he did a real nice job with that."

The Orioles were hoping big right-hander Alfredo Simon would give them something else to feel good about Tuesday, but he was not as sharp as he was in his four-inning, one-hit performance Thursday. He pitched four innings again and gave up two runs (one earned) on two hits and two walks, a performance that was statistically sound, but not when you consider he was pitching largely against minor league competition and struck out only one of the 17 batters he faced.

"Simon was not as good as the last time in Viera," Trembley said, "so we'll run him out there again and see what we've got."

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