Strong start falls apart

Off mark vs. Marlins, Penn hurts his shot at rotation

March 27, 2009|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - His latest opportunity wasn't ruined by an emergency appendectomy or a flying bat shard or a misstep on the stairs in the team hotel. Hayden Penn got to take the mound Thursday at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and state his case that he belongs in the Orioles' rotation.

What he did, instead, was cast his Orioles future further in doubt. Needing a strong start to lock down one of three undecided rotation spots, Penn was knocked around for seven earned runs in 2 2/3 innings in the Orioles' 11-6 loss to the Florida Marlins at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Asked what the performance did for Penn's rotation chances, Orioles manager Dave Trembley paused before saying, "Obviously, you have to evaluate what you saw today."

What team officials saw was Penn getting off to a strong start, striking out the first batter he faced (Emilio Bonifacio) on three pitches, and cruising through the first inning on 13 pitches, 11 of them strikes. Then, just as quickly as he navigated through the top of the first, Penn came undone in the second.

The right-hander, 24, who not long ago was considered the organization's best pitching prospect, issued three walks in the second inning and allowed an RBI single to Cody Ross and a three-run triple to Bonifacio. After getting two quick outs in the third, Penn surrendered back-to-back doubles to Jeremy Hermida and Ross, who scored, ending his outing. Penn allowed five hits, walked three and threw a wild pitch, his spring ERA ballooning to 8.18.

"Actually, I felt pretty good out there," said Penn, who needed 62 pitches to get eight outs. "Obviously, the line is bad and I didn't get it done, but I felt pretty good. I really did. That's probably the best I felt physically all spring. ... I felt I was making some quality pitches. That's the way it goes. That's baseball."

In 13 1/3 innings this spring, Penn has allowed 13 earned runs and 19 hits and issued six walks. There are times, including Thursday, when he has looked like the pitcher most expected he would become after he made his major league debut in 2005, before his 21st birthday. But there has also been too much inconsistency, which has hindered him throughout his career. At one point in a rocky second inning Thursday, Penn missed the strike zone on 12 of 16 pitches.

"I don't think it was mechanical at all," Trembley said. "He just fell behind and didn't throw enough strikes, especially first-pitch strikes. Boy, he was off to a great start in the first inning. He had a real nice, sharp curveball. All his pitches were clicking for him. Then it was completely the opposite the second inning."

Penn, one of five candidates for three rotation spots, is forcing the Orioles to make a difficult decision. He is out of options, meaning the Orioles would need him to pass through waivers to get him to Triple-A Norfolk. The Orioles aren't confident Penn will make it through waivers, as a number of teams, including the pitcher's hometown and pitching-desperate San Diego Padres, have expressed interest in him in the past.

With Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson front-runners to secure two of the three spots and Alfredo Simon having pitched the best of the other rotation candidates, the Orioles could keep Penn by using him as the long man out of the bullpen. But that could mean losing Brian Bass, whom team officials consider a valuable member of the pitching staff and who is also out of options.

"I've been here since Day One; I want to be here," said Penn, who said he didn't feel extra pressure pitching with a roster spot on the line. "If I don't get it done, I don't get it done. I can handle that. But I'd like to be here, yeah."

Penn has gone through some rough moments with the club. The night before he was called up to make his first start for the Orioles in 2006, he had appendicitis, which forced him to miss seven weeks of the season. His first spring start in 2007 was delayed after he sprained an ankle carrying boxes up steps. He never made it to the big leagues that season because of an elbow injury that required surgery. Then last August when he was primed for a major league call-up, Penn was cut on the leg by a piece of a broken bat in a warm-up start.

Penn has remained healthy this spring, but he's probably running out of chances in a competition of which he said he hasn't been keeping track.

"It's hard enough without another thing on my mind," he said. "I just want to go out there and get guys out."

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