Orioles' starting pitching is cause for concern

Consistency lacking for nearly every potential rotation member

March 18, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — — It has become almost a daily occurrence this spring.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter will be asked after a game about his starting pitcher that day, and his answer is non-committal and underwhelmed.

For all the talk about the team's beefed-up lineup and revamped bullpen, everyone in the Orioles' clubhouse knows that the team will make significant strides only if the starting pitching holds up. It's far too early to panic, but the performance of several of the starters the past couple of weeks has, at the very least, raised some concern.

With Opening Day now two weeks away, Orioles starters are running out of time to put together some positive outings before the start of the season.

"Pitching has been a question mark since three years ago," said likely Opening Day starter Jeremy Guthrie, speaking about his time in the organization. "You can add all the offense you want, [but] the key to winning is still pitching. It always has been. It has been since we brought in Derrek Lee, it has been since we brought in Mark Reynolds, it has been since we brought in Vladimir Guerrero. To think that hitting is going to win championships is ignorant. We have to pitch well and if we pitch well, we have a very good chance."

All members of the Orioles' projected rotation, except Jake Arrieta, who faces the Philadelphia Phillies Saturday, have had at least four outings, and none of them have been consistently impressive. Young lefty Brian Matusz was sharp Friday night against the Minnesota Twins, allowing one earned run and striking out eight over 4 2/3 innings, lowering his spring ERA to 3.65.

Zach Britton, the organization's top pitching prospect, has thrown 14 scoreless innings this spring if you count the five he hurled Thursday in a minor league game. However, the team would prefer to start him in the minors to give him a little more experience and not start his salary and service time clock so soon.

With Justin Duchscherer sidelined with hip soreness and unlikely for the Opening Day rotation, Chris Tillman has emerged as the leading candidate for the fifth starter's spot. He has the lowest spring ERA with a 3.55, but he's also allowed 20 baserunners in 12 2/3 innings and consistently scuffled with his command.

Guthrie has a 6.00 ERA through three Grapefruit League starts — he also pitched against the Boston Red Sox Triple-A team Wednesday — but he's the least of the Orioles' pitching concerns. Bergesen has posted a 6.94 ERA and permitted 22 baserunners in 11 2/3. Arrieta's pitched to a 4.00 ERA and struck out eight in nine innings.

Compounding matters, other potential rotation candidates, like Rick VandenHurk and Ryan Drese, have been knocked around in recent outings, and both now appear unlikely to break camp with the big league club.

"I can only speak for myself and I'm not happy with the results that I have gotten so far this spring," Bergesen said. "They are not good at all on paper. I have no idea what they're thinking. That's very out of my control. I'm doing everything I can to prepare myself. For me, honestly, there's no worry. What's going to happen is going to happen. I'm not going to sit around and worry about it all day. It really is about us getting our work in. But at some point, you need to get it going and you need to show flashes of what you're capable of doing."

Bergesen and Matusz are among several Orioles pitchers who have been asked by new pitching coach Mark Connor to make some mechanical changes. Matusz has been working on the positioning of his hands during his windup. He said after his previous start that he was over-thinking the changes, but Friday night, he looked plenty comfortable, proving Tillman, his housemate this spring and his closest friend on the team, prophetic.

"Brian is working on a few things right now and I haven't seen him this excited in a long time," Tillman said before Matusz's outing Friday. "He feels he's figured it out, like a light went on in his head, and he's got it. He talks about it all the time. I walk in his room and he's in there by himself in front of the mirror going over his delivery. I think we're all excited."

Earlier this spring, Connor called his young pitchers together and urged them not to try too hard to impress him and the new coaching staff. Connor has said that what matters most during the first couple of weeks of spring games is for the pitchers to hit their inning marks and to stay healthy. He understands that pitchers, specifically young ones looking to make an impression, are focused on results, but he has bigger concerns.

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