In early hole, Orioles starters keeping digging


Part of the education of a big-league manager is learning when to say when. At the moment John Oates is getting a crash course from the Orioles' starting pitchers.

Handling a pitching staff sometimes requires sacrificing somebody's earned run average to preserve a few arms. Unfortunately for Oates and the Orioles the practice has become almost standard procedure.

Working with a bullpen that has pitched more innings (220) than any other in the American League, Oates is finding out there is no effective relief for consistently ineffective starters.

"Can you imagine what it would be like if you had to go get them every time somebody got in trouble?" Oates asked after his most recent painful lesson. The Orioles had taken a 9-2 thumping from the Minnesota Twins, the third time in a week that they trailed by at least six runs in the early innings.

"If the starters had been doing what they're sent out to do, there would have been a number of times lately when we could have made a move earlier," said Oates.

Sometimes you just have to sit back and hope the pounding stops, just like trying to outlast a headache. "Something's got to be done," said Oates. "We've got to find a way to keep from falling behind so early. We've got to get out of the first few innings without a bunch of runs scoring."

Roy Smith (3-1) couldn't do it last night, but on a night the righthander suffered his first Orioles loss, he at least was credited with a save -- of the bullpen. "He kept us from totally getting embarrassed before we had to make a move," said Oates.

Smith gave up six runs in the first two innings, but managed to hang around until the sixth, giving up one more run in the process. The Orioles were no match for Twins righthander Scott Erickson (11-2), even though he had an ordinary night (six innings, one hit, but five walks) by his lofty standards.

Having their modest three-game winning streak stopped was only a tiny blur on the overall picture for the Orioles. During the last eight games, the starting pitchers have a collective ERA of 11.10, in part at least because they've had to stay and suffer through what they started.

"They've got to realize we can't go to the bullpen in the third inning every night," said Oates. "We can't afford to give those guys [the relievers] two or three nights off [after a long outing] -- they have to be ready to pitch again tonight."

The problem has become so acute that Ben McDonald could turn up in the starting rotation as soon as next Wednesday. Oates has said the big righthander won't be activated until he can throw at least 80 pitches.

McDonald is scheduled to pitch on a rehabilitation assignment in Rochester Friday, when he will be on a 60-70 pitch count. Oates said he wouldn't necessarily reSee ORIOLES, D3, Col. 1ORIOLES, From D1quire McDonald to throw 80 pitches in a minor-league game before being reactivated.

"Not necessarily," said Oates. "If he breezes through Friday night, then . . . "

The sentence was finished for Oates. "You'll find a spot for him," was the suggestion.

"Any one he wants," said Oates.

The Orioles are desperate for starters and they sorely miss McDonald carrying the consistent workload that was expected of him. Oates is committed to not jeopardizing the future of McDonald, or the Orioles, by rushing the righthander back.

However, Oates doesn't hide the fact he wants McDonald pitching as soon as he's ready.

"We've had so many of these games," said Oates. "It seems like we're behind 4-0 before we turn around."

One of the first moves Oates made after taking over as manager was to add an 11th pitcher to the staff. There have been times since when two or three more seemed like a good idea.

For the bullpen to be effective, the starters have to consistently get past the fifth inning (they have failed to do that 24 times in 62 games). And if they can't do it on merit, there are going to be times when they have to do it because of necessity.

Oates said he thought Smith, who was released by Minnesota last winter, was "real nervous" facing his old teammates. But the righthander dismissed that notion.

"I wasn't nervous," he said. "I've pitched too many games in the big leagues to get nervous over something like that."

Erickson allowed only a leadoff double by Mike Devereaux in reducing his AL-leading earned run average to 1.51 while becoming the winningest pitcher in the majors.

Minnesota manager Tom Kelly was pleased with the way his club rebounded from the tough 6-5 loss Monday night that broke the Twins' 15-game winning streak. "I was real impressed with the way they went right after it, from the first inning on, after sitting around for almost two hours," said Kelly.

The game was delayed by rain for one hour and 53 minutes and didn't end until almost five hours after the originally scheduled starting time.

The Orioles announced they have signed Shawn Curran, their 2 pick in the amateur draft. Curran, 17, was rated the fourth best catching prospect in the draft by Baseball America.

Six feet 2 and 205 pounds, Curran hit .482 for Corona (Calif.)

High School this spring. He will report to the Orioles' Gulf State League rookie team in Sarasota.

Cal Ripken went 0-for-3 against Erickson, breaking a streak of six straight multi-hit games. His league-leading average dipped to .357.

News from the AL Least: In the last three weeks none of the AL Eastern Division teams has played at a .500 pace. The Orioles (10-11) have the best record in the division over that stretch. Milwaukee is 9-10; Boston and Toronto 9-11; New York 8-10; Detroit 8-12 and Cleveland 6-14.

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