CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If the Orioles are waiting for Fernando Valenzuela to expose himself as a myth, they may need a lot of patience.
What started out as a spring training curiosity has suddenly developed into a subject of intrigue. Can Valenzuela, after an absence of nearly two years, make a successful return to the big leagues?
There still isn't anybody willing to make that prediction, but even those who scoffed at that notion when Valenzuela reported to camp are beginning to have second thoughts.
The veteran left-hander made his third impressive spring training outing here yesterday, allowing two hits in five innings. Valenzuela has pitched 10 straight scoreless innings and, more importantly, has gotten better each time out.
"Well, what do you say now?" asked ex-Oriole Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher who worked the telecast of yesterday's game. "It's tough to judge anybody on a day like this, but he made a lot of good pitches."
The conditions yesterday were definitely conducive to effective pitching, with a stiff wind blowing straight in toward home plate. The game was scoreless when Valenzuela left and the Phillies went on to score three times off Jamie Moyer for a 3-1 win.
But, despite the favorable conditions, Valenzuela still was the favorite topic of discussion. And he got generally favorable reviews, though some of the Phillies wondered how much the wind helped him.
"He didn't throw bad, he was hitting his spots," said Phillies catcher Darren Daulton. "But you can't judge a pitcher in this stuff [the wind]. I could pitch on a day like this.
"I'm not trying to take anything away from him, but when you have a 40-mph wind at your back, anybody can pitch. But we only got a couple of hits, so he looked like Cy Young," said Daulton.
Center fielder Lenny Dykstra shared Daulton's opinion. "All he had to do was throw the ball over the plate," Dykstra said of the wind. "He could help them, but it's hard to tell much on a day like this."
However, outfielder Dale Murphy and Phillies manager Jim Fregosi gave Valenzuela high grades.
"He was outstanding," said Fregosi. "He threw free and easy -- that's the best I've seen him throw in a long time."
Murphy, who like Daulton and Dykstra was 0-for-2 against the left-hander, said he was impressed. "He threw better than he did the last time I saw him with the Dodgers ," said Murphy. "I don't remember him throwing that well.
"And he has so much experience, he'll always keep you in the game," said Murphy. "He knows how to pitch."
After the game, Orioles manager Johnny Oates sought out Phillies coach John Vukovich, a longtime friend. "I was interested in hearing what the reaction was on their bench," said Oates. "The consensus was he is throwing much better now than he was before he got released."
Oates remained noncommittal about Valenzuela's chances. He was asked, if he had to make a decision now, if Valenzuela would be on the team.
"I don't have to make a decision now," said Oates, dodging the question. "He hasn't given up a run yet, we'll just wait and see what happens the rest of the way. What it's coming down to [among those in contention for the final roster spots] is that you're in trouble if you give up a couple of runs."
Oates did acknowledge that he thought Valenzuela threw better yesterday than he did in his previous two outings. And he also admitted that he's given thought to how the roster could be affected if Valenzuela survives the final cut.
"I've been thinking about that for a long time," said Oates.
He was asked what Valenzuela has to do in order to make the team. "He has to continue to get people out," replied Oates.
Pitching coach Dick Bosman also thought Valenzuela showed continued improvement yesterday, and said there was only one way to find out if he can make it back. "You just keep sending him out there," said Bosman. "He's been better every time out."
With two weeks remaining in spring training, there's still plenty of time for the bubble to burst. But, based on what he's shown thus far, Valenzuela is in the middle of the battle for the fifth spot in the Orioles' rotation.
It would appear that the only person who can knock him out of the picture is Valenzuela himself. As long as he keeps putting zeros on the board, the Orioles are going to keep looking.
And, so far at least, the longer they look, the more they like what they see.