Sutcliffe to open? Oates isn't saying


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The planets appear to be perfectly aligned for Rick Sutcliffe to take the mound against the Texas Rangers on Opening Day, but manager Johnny Oates says he still is far from announcing the order of his regular-season starting rotation.

Sutcliffe pitched five innings in yesterday's 2-0 loss to the New York Yankees at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and he will pitch on Friday against the Rangers in St. Petersburg. If he pitches every fifth day after that, he'll be the starter on April 5 when the season opens at Oriole Park.

Oates is making a habit of keeping his Opening Day starter a well-guarded secret until the final days of spring training. He did not announce that Sutcliffe would be the 1992 Opening Day starter until March 30, one week before the game. But the scenario is shaping up the same.

Last year, Sutcliffe settled into a five-day rotation about two weeks before the season opener and it lined him up perfectly for the first regular-season game ever at Camden Yards. He threw a shutout on Opening Day and went on to win 16 games. The Orioles went on to have a very successful season.

Don't expect Oates to mess with a winning formula, but don't expect him to admit to anything until next week. Yesterday, he wouldn't even concede that Sutcliffe would remain on a five-day program the rest of the spring.

Oates said he would meet with pitching coach Dick Bosman to discuss his pitching plans today. The Opening Day starter probably will be on the agenda, but there will be no announcement.

"I'll probably have an idea, but I'm not going to tell anybody," Oates said.

Sutcliffe hasn't heard anything. He keeps running into bad weather, but he managed to get in his five innings of work yesterday despite a steady drizzle that turned the mound into a quagmire. He gave up two runs on eight hits, but proclaimed himself right on schedule for the regular season.

"Other than Mother Nature, everything has gone well," he said. "I thought I was going to go another inning today, but I reached my 80-pitch limit. Next time out, I'll try to get up to 90 and then 100 the last time. But it would be nice to have some good weather so I could really cut it loose."

Oates had several good reasons for his choice of Opening Day starter a year ago. He wanted an experienced pitcher to weather the hype that surrounded the first game at the new stadium and he wanted to avoid putting any added pressure on youngsters Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina. This year, the stadium is a year old and the two young pitchers are a year older, so those considerations no longer may apply.

Mussina is the other Opening Day candidate this year. He rates serious consideration after an 18-5 season in which he led the American League in winning percentage. But it seems likely that Oates will try to make history repeat itself with Sutcliffe on the mound.

Sutcliffe isn't campaigning for the assignment. In fact, he took the opportunity yesterday to point out how things have changed since last spring.

"I'm just happy he has so many options," Sutcliffe said. "He's got four guys that -- in my mind -- he could run out there on Opening Day. Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina and Arthur Rhodes are going to have a lot of Opening Days before their careers are over. It's going to be tough with them all on the same team, but they have the ability to pitch a lot of openers."

Sutcliffe, 36, has pitched his share, but he obviously wouldn't mind throwing one more.

"If you start hoping for it, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment," he said. "Maybe it's just maturity and experience, but I've learned not to worry about what I don't control. I know one thing. I'm going to be facing Texas on Friday. It will be nice to have the luxury of four days so I can work on some things."

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