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Sutcliffe is No. 1, but not only one Mussina-led cast offers more support


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Phase two of spring training begins today for the Orioles, when they open their 29-game exhibition season against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton.

And the scenario is almost identical to that of a year ago. Rick Sutcliffe will start the first game, just as he did last year. He's also on schedule to pitch the first game of the regular season, just as he did last year.

The similarities are not coincidental but, according to Sutcliffe and manager Johnny Oates, neither are they identical. This time around, there won't be the sense of urgency connected with the spring-training record, although Oates insists that winning still remains a priority.

"Last year, the only question I had about Sutcliffe was whether he was healthy enough to give us the innings we needed," said Oates. "He exceeded all my expectations.

"This year, I don't have to worry about that -- I know he's healthy, and I know he's still got quality stuff. So right there is one less thing that I have to look for this year," said Oates.

Another thing he doesn't have to worry about is pitching Sutcliffe in the opening game just because he's the only one who can handle the distractions that go with the assignment. "I have two guys who could pitch Opening Day," said Oates, referring to Mike Mussina without using his name. "They're both set up so they could pitch that game without making any adjustments.

"I don't think either would be a bad choice, and I'll make that decision later in spring training."

Mussina will start tomorrow's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, with Ben McDonald facing the same team on Sunday and Arthur Rhodes pitching against Kansas City on Monday. Those four also are scheduled to pitch the first four games of the regular season, and Oates is eager to get the rotation established early.

"Because of what happened last year [when the team rebounded from a 95-loss season to win 89 games], we earned some respect," said Oates. "Now, we have to keep it.

"We set the tone last year in spring training, and it carried into the regular season. Winning is never the only priority here, but it ,, makes spring training a lot more fun."

Last year, the Orioles finished with a 17-11 exhibition record, their first winning spring since 1984 (15-12). And Sutcliffe, for one, doesn't want to change anything other than his pitch selection.

"I don't want to approach it any different than last year," said the veteran right-hander. "My one goal is to be more consistent.

"I had a lot of good games last year, but there were about six or seven [starts] when you didn't know who that guy was," said Sutcliffe. "That's where I can improve the most -- with my consistency.

"The only thing I'll do different down here this year is throw more pitches. I've been using a split-fingered fastball, and I've got to get a better changeup. I'll work on different pitches until the last three starts, then I'll go about it like it's the regular season.

"A year ago, all I worried about doing was throwing as hard as I could to prove I was healthy," said Sutcliffe. "I had to prove it to Johnny, and I had to prove it to myself."

Sutcliffe said the Orioles' pitching staff is the area that can show the most improvement this year. "Everybody talks about the Atlanta staff, and I know what they've got because I played with [Greg] Maddux and against those other guys," he said. "But, I think this group here has the potential to be in that category. The three young pitchers we have -- Mike, Ben and Arthur -- are capable.

"The area that needs to improve enough to become the strength of our team is the starting pitchers. I hope that can happen. For us to be in a position to win, we have to have more than potential.

"I think this group can go past potential this year. We have to get more consistent, and in that regard you can start with me," said Sutcliffe. "One game over .500 [he was 16-15 last year] doesn't cut it. I've got to be better than that.

"For us to win last year, I needed to win 26 games instead of 16. That's not the case this year."

That is Sutcliffe's way of saying the rest of the rotation has the ability to pick up the extra wins. "I know the only reason I pitched Opening Day last year was because Johnny didn't want to put anybody else through that," he said.

That might not be the case this year, and Sutcliffe knows it. Mussina, coming off an 18-5 season, is sitting in the wings, and he's about as unflappable as they come.

By all statistical criteria, Mussina is a no-brainer choice to pitch the first game. But when they start playing for practice today, it will be Sutcliffe who toes it up.

And, if he has to give up the assignment on April 5, he won't begrudge Mussina the opportunity -- but he will do so grudgingly.

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