Milacki's comeback road is marked by slow going


PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Bob Milacki was on the early bus yesterday. He rolled out of bed, rolled down Interstate 75 and rolled through the first two innings of a split-squad game against the Texas Rangers. But he is not on a roll.

A largely anonymous Rangers lineup scored five runs off him in the third inning, picking up where the Texas regulars left off Tuesday night. Milacki has given up 11 earned runs in his past seven innings, which is no way to start over after a 5-8 season.

This is the point in spring training when manager Frank Robinson begins the evaluation process. It is his policy to dismiss the first two outings and begin judging the pitchers the third time around. There is no cause for alarm, but Milacki has some work to do before he'll be ready for the regular-season rotation.

If he was looking for results yesterday, he had to be disappointed. If he was looking for consistency, he was out of luck. But he was willing to settle for some measureable improvement, so it was not such a bad performance.

He retired the first six batters he faced, but gave up five runs on four hits in the third. He settled down and worked through a scoreless fourth before coming in from the rain. The Orioles eventually lost the game, 7-6.

"I threw a lot better today than I did the last time," Milacki said. "My changeup was much better. I wasn't tipping my pitches. I think I have something to build on. But you never want to give up that many runs."

The coaching staff does not seem particularly concerned, even though Milacki is coming back from a season in which his arm strength and effectiveness came into serious question. If his shoulder is healthy, he is expected to be one of Robinson's five starters.

"It's too early to really put your finger on anything," pitching coach Al Jackson said. "Some guys have a great spring and do nothing during the season. Some guys have a terrible spring and do fine. You shouldn't get alarmed. The guy can pitch."

Milacki proved that in 1989, when he won 14 games as a rookie. With a little more luck and a little more offensive support, he might have won 17 or 18 and challenged teammate Gregg Olson for American League Rookie of the Year honors. But his luck ran out completely in 1990. He won just one of his first 10 starts and struggled with shoulder soreness throughout the season.

"My confidence was way up there after 1989," Milacki said. "I went into the off-season knowing that I had a definite place in the rotation. It was an easier off-season than this one. This year, I had to work harder and get back to better pitching mechanics."

The most recent mechanical adjustments provide a partial explanation for the shelling Milacki took in Tuesday night's game at Ed Smith Stadium (three innings, six earned runs) and the trouble he had in the third inning yesterday. He has been working on a quicker delivery out of the stretch, which is playing havoc with his control.

"Some of us had trouble holding runners on base last year, so I'm trying to be quicker to the plate," Milacki said. "Sometimes, I get way out there [full extension], and sometimes I don't. There were some pitches when I flew open and the ball just died."

There is plenty of time to get his game together. The regular season does not start for another 3 1/2 weeks. The evaluation period has begun, but Robinson and Jackson are aware that Milacki might require more patience than some of his fellow pitchers.

This is where the importance of a full spring training becomes apparent. Milacki -- like teammate Jeff Ballard -- felt the effects of last year's spring-training lockout throughout the season, though stops short of attributing his shoulder problem to the lack of preparation time.

He says the dead shoulder is a dead issue, though he still is not throwing as hard as he did two years ago. It is a little early to be airing it out, anyway.

"For a couple of innings, he threw well," Jackson said. "He had one screwed up inning, but overall, he's throwing OK. There's no problem."

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