ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- You can put Chris Hoiles at the top of the list of people who were impressed with Fernando Valenzuela here last night.
The Orioles catcher admitted he didn't know what to expect -- but liked what he saw of the first outing in Valenzuela's latest comeback attempt. The former Los Angeles Dodgers great pitched two scoreless innings, though not without incident, as the Orioles beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 4-0, last night.
"I had never seen him throw in person," said Hoiles. "All I'd heard were reports that he was finished, that his time had come and gone.
"But he impressed me. I thought he looked great," said Hoiles. "I think he's got at least one year left in him, and maybe more."
Valenzuela was less ecstatic about his performance, but expressed satisfaction with himself. "I think I tried to get a little too fine in the second inning [when he got into a bases-loaded, nobody-out situation]," he said.
"I was rushing a little bit, trying to overthrow, but that's usually what happens in spring training," said Valenzuela.
Each of the innings Valenzuela pitched ended with a double-play ground ball. The first was hit by veteran Joe Carter, who had seen Valenzuela before, the other by Domingo Cedeno, who hadn't.
"The Orioles have a very good defense," said Valenzuela. "I think to get two double plays in two innings would be very good for any pitcher."
He attributed his ability to escape the threatening situation in the fifth inning to the fact that he used all of his pitches. "That's the way I always pitched before," he said.
"I have a lot of confidence in the screwball [which he used to strike out World Series MVP Pat Borders on a 3-and-2 count], and I usually throw it in that situation," said Valenzuela.
Sitting in the second row, just to the right of home plate, Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson said the strikeout of Borders was the most impressive thing Valenzuela did. "That was vintage Fernando," said Robinson. "He threw that hard one [screwball] that looks like it's going to be there, then it drops out of the [strike] zone."
Valenzuela struck out Borders with the bases loaded and nobody out after falling behind in the count 3-and-0. "He threw a regular fastball, then a cut fastball [on which Borders was called for a checked swing] and a screwball," said Hoiles. Valenzuela's next pitch was a fastball that jammed Cedeno and resulted in a roller on which second baseman Harold Reynolds started a double play.
Carter said he was impressed with what he saw of Valenzuela. "From when I saw him in 1990, it looks like he has more velocity," said Carter. "He's a crafty veteran, and he threw some good pitches.
"The pitch I swung and missed wasn't one of his better ones, but it made me swing and miss," said Carter. "He mixed up his pitches and kept you honest. The pitch I hit for a double play was a fastball."
Before the game, manager Johnny Oates pulled Valenzuela aside to assure him that he wouldn't be judged on one game. "I told him to do what he had to do and have fun, that we weren't going to make a decision based on one game," said Oates.
After the game, Oates tempered any enthusiasm he might have had by basically repeating what he had said earlier. "We're not going to make any decisions on this game," he said, "but the bottom line is he put two zeros up there."
Oates said that Valenzuela was close to being removed from the game when he struggled in the fifth inning. "He was probably on his last hitter," said Oates. "The last thing in the world I wanted to do was have to go out there and get him, but we've been cutting the other guys off after 30 pitches."
Valenzuela threw a total of 38 pitches while allowing two hits, a ZTC walk and hit batter and striking out two. It wasn't a totally clean effort, but for starters it was enough to pass the first test.