Battle of O's pitching slots dawns with Opening Day on horizon

March 28, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

SARASOTA, Fla. — It didn't seem all that complicated a few days ago. The makeup of the five-man regular-season starting rotation didn't even seem to be in doubt when the Orioles opened pitcher and catcher workouts in mid-February.

Now, all of a sudden, the most intriguing story of training camp is the pitched battle between Chris Tillman and David Hernandez for the fifth slot in the starting rotation - a competition that has crystallized with Tillman's so-so performance Friday night and Hernandez's impressive outing against the Boston Red Sox on Saturday.

No one is coming right out and saying it, but when Hernandez worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation with three straight strikeouts in the fourth inning of Saturday's 6-1 victory, it might have been a gamechanger in more ways than one.

Hernandez pitched five scoreless innings, giving up four hits and two walks. He mixed his pitches well and struck out six, but might have impressed manager Dave Trembley more with his one scary inning than the easier other four.

"I liked that one," Trembley said. "His poise was good. He wasn't walking around the mound. He wasn't changing his game plan. He didn't look like he got flustered, and he didn't overthrow. I think what you saw last year with David and a lot of the young guys, they try to overthrow. They elevate the ball, and they are asking the umpires for a new one."

This is one of those read-between-the-lines situations. The night before, when Tillman needed 88 pitches to get through 4 1/3 innings, he took responsibility for a difficult third inning that ran up his pitch count and prevented him from going deep into the game. He said his performance in that inning was "unacceptable," even though the outcome - two runs on four hits and four walks - wasn't exactly an abomination.

You would think that Trembley would have applauded the maturity of a 21-year-old pitcher holding himself accountable for an imperfect performance, but the manager seemed unusually harsh in his appraisal.

"If he was hard on himself," Trembley said, "he had every right to be."

Trembley softened his stance Saturday on Tillman's performance, but even in his attempt to cast the competition as wide open, it seemed obvious from his tone that something had changed over the past week.

"He's going to pitch again next Tuesday or Wednesday, or whatever it is," Trembley said. "Let's hope it gets better. You could just tell last night. I sat over here and I said, 'We're not going to catch the ball very well, we're not going to hit very well because the tempo of the game is absolutely horrible.' The pace of the game was absolutely atrocious."

That's kind of a big deal for this team, which probably led the world in starting pitchers throwing 100 pitches by the fourth inning last year.

"After the third inning, he picked it up and found the strike zone and threw some first-pitch strikes, and we started to get back in it," Trembley said. "He seemed out of sync, confused. Even he said he didn't even know why he was throwing some of the pitches that he was throwing. Chris is better than that. I, to a certain extent, would concur that he's young. He's 21. But everybody knows what's going on. Step up and show it."

Though Trembley insists that the competition has been open from the start, there was little evidence of that when the Orioles arrived in camp. Tillman was in the starting rotation from the start of the Grapefruit League season and Hernandez didn't make his first major league exhibition start until March 16.

Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail isn't tipping his hand, but he said he's happy that there is enough talent in the organization to be having a conversation about who might be the odd man out of the rotation.

"Absolutely," he said. "We have guys competing for spots and we don't have spots competing for guys."

MacPhail said Saturday that no final decision has been made on the fifth starter or the last long-relief role, but it is sure starting to sound as if Hernandez will open the season in the fifth slot and Jason Berken has improved his chances of getting the final spot in the bullpen.

All you have to do is look at the grueling April schedule and it's hard to imagine any other scenario. The Orioles start the season with 16 games before their first day off, which means that they can't tiptoe around the final slot in the rotation. It also means that there might be a premium on long-relief innings, so it's likely that they'll go with somebody who can pitch a lot in the long role. That points to Berken at the outset, but the club could make an adjustment when the schedule crunch eases.

"Given the schedule we have, it's incumbent on us to try and preserve as much flexibility as we can as far as our pitching staff is concerned," MacPhail said.

MacPhail also has to take into account the personalities involved and the repercussions if the decision to choose one or the other backfires. Because of Tillman's youth and standing as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, Hernandez might be the safer choice.

"They haven't said anything to me as far as the starting rotation or where I'll start or what my role will be," Hernandez said. "I just want to go out there and make it a tough decision. If it isn't me, then we'll have someone out there who is as tough or better."

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