ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Mark Williamson's candidacy for th fifth spot in the Orioles' starting rotation was largely theoretical . . . until yesterday afternoon.
There has been a lot of talk during the past few months about the possibility of moving him from the bullpen into a spot starter role. In theory, he would be able to use a greater variety of pitches than he did as a setup man, thereby increasing his effectiveness and solving a problem for the club in the process.
There was only one drawback, of course. Williamson missed most of the 1992 season after elbow surgery, so his endurance and durability remains very much in question. That's why yesterday's appearance against the Cincinnati Reds was so encouraging.
Williamson pitched four scoreless innings in the Orioles' 3-0 victory, earning the decision in the club's fourth shutout of the exhibition season. He gave up two hits and struck out one on the way to his first victory of any kind since spring training last year.
"I'm just happy that my arm is holding up," Williamson, 33, said afterward. "It's a little tender. I have a little bit of dead arm in general. I'm just trying to be fluid right now and develop a consistent rhythm."
It wasn't a perfect outing, but he has been nearly perfect so far this spring. He retired the first 16 batters he faced in exhibition action, a string that ended when he gave up a hit with one out in his first inning yesterday. He has worked a total of nine innings and yielded two hits and no runs.
"This was probably the worst I have pitched," he said. "I didn't have a good breaking ball, and I had a so-so changeup. I threw more sliders today than I have in all of camp."
If it was a major step toward winning a place in the starting rotation, manager Johnny Oates didn't want to get ahead of himself. Williamson has pitched in long relief, so four innings isn't a total stretch.
"I don't know if it's a big step for him," Oates said. "I don't think it's anything we didn't expect. He wasn't doing anything he hasn't done. We really haven't gotten to the point of extending him. He's doing exactly what he has done during the regular season."
The next start could be the first in which he works as a starter, but it might have to be in "B" competition. He has been pitching behind right-hander Mike Mussina, who also threw four scoreless innings yesterday, and both will be extended again the next time out.
"We'll have to split them up now," Oates said. "The next outing will be five innings each, and there aren't 10 innings in a game."
The competition for the final rotation spot still is in the preliminary stages, but Williamson appears to have strengthened his position considerably in the past week. If he remains healthy and continues to be effective, it will be very hard for any of the handful of other candidates to beat him out.
He isn't looking at it quite that way, but he appears to be going after it with a passion.
"I don't look at it as being a starter," he said. "I'm just one of the pitchers. If I'm in the starting rotation, so be it. When they tell me to pitch, I'll pitch. I've just got to impress people and try to make this ballclub."
That was not a problem until this spring. Williamson was one of the best right-handed setup men in the game in 1989 and '90, with a combined record of 18-5 and a 2.62 ERA in 114 games. He slipped a little in '91 (5-5, 4.48) and slipped out of the picture last year, when bone chips forced him onto an operating table on May 12.
He returned to give up two earned runs in 18 2/3 innings (0.96 ERA) of middle relief at the end of the season.
None of the other candidates has disqualified himself in the early going. Right-hander Mike Cook, who was so impressive in winter ball this year, has made three appearances and given up just one earned run. Left-hander Steve Searcy has made two scoreless appearances. Fernando Valenzuela pitched decently in his first appearance Thursday night.
Right-hander Anthony Telford and left-hander Jamie Moyer have struggled a bit, but Oates said it is too early to jump to any conclusions.
Williamson, however, has jumped to an early lead.
"To win it, he's doing just what he has to do," Oates said.