SARASOTA, FLA. — When Dave Trembley took over as Orioles manager in 2007, I'm pretty sure he never imagined that the job would require a knack for international diplomacy.
Take Saturday, for instance.
Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara was scheduled to play catch on flat ground two days after walking off the mound at Dunedin Stadium with another twinge in his troublesome left hamstring.
Trembley was asked for an update and proceeded to explain that he is not the least bit worried that Uehara might not be ready to open the regular season on time.
"I don't feel uncertain that he'll be ready for the season," Trembley said. "I've been led to believe it is a day-to-day thing. If we get to a point two or three days before camp ends, then I'd have some reason to be alarmed."
That sounds really nice, but let's be honest. I was worried that Uehara would not be ready to start the 2010 season on time last July. He's been hurt more than Wile E. Coyote.
There's absolutely no disrespect intended here. Uehara is working very hard to make good on the $10 million contract he signed to pitch the 2009 and 2010 seasons for the Orioles. He was clearly disappointed when his hamstring grabbed during that appearance against the Toronto Blue Jays. Everybody hopes it's just a minor setback at the start of a successful season as a setup reliever, but there's no way you could look at his injury history and say you're not concerned.
That is, unless you're the manager of the team that signed him to that contract and you're flanked on one side by members of the U.S. media and on the other by several reporters from Japan.
Trembley was walking a tightrope. He certainly isn't fooling himself about Uehara's durability, but he knows the pitcher is the flagbearer for the Orioles' recent attempt to build a presence on the Pacific Rim. The last thing he and the club want to do is offend or embarrass Uehara, who remains a huge star in Japan.
The truth of the matter is this: The Orioles have little choice but to accept whatever Uehara can give them out of the bullpen this year. They have sunk a lot of money into him and hope he can be a top-flight reliever, which was looking pretty good until Thursday.
He had been throwing the ball very well, which seemed to confirm his effectiveness in short/middle situations. But a number of Orioles middle relievers have held their own this spring, so if Trembley really is unconcerned, it is because he has some decent alternatives.
"I've been calling it a dogfight," Trembley said. "There is competition down there for a limited number of spots. I'm not concerned about Koji. We do have some options, but my first option is for him to be in our bullpen because he has been pitching very well."
That last part is certainly true. The Orioles need Uehara to succeed for a variety of good reasons, but when his chronic hamstring problem crops up in such a low-impact situation, you - and the Orioles - have a right to wonder whether this year will be a replay of 2009, when he grappled with the hamstring in spring training and had to be shut down in June with a torn flexor tendon in his pitching elbow.
Trembley is not going to admit that. No way. He is praying that this latest little speed bump will smooth itself over and Uehara will settle nicely into a key bullpen role. He might even believe that, since you have to be a cock-eyed optimist to manage the Orioles.
The rest of us wish we could believe that, too.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.