It's anybody's ball for O's fifth starting slot 4 in running with time running out SPRING TRAINING


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- With only eight days left befor Opening Day, the Orioles are no closer to determining their fifth starter than they were at the start of spring training.

Under normal circumstances that would fall under the heading of bad news. But this has not been a normal spring for the Orioles, who find themselves with an interesting dilemma.

The four pitchers still technically competing for the final two spots on the staff have a combined ERA of 0.88. And realistically, it's too late for anybody to pitch his way off the staff.

After yesterday's 4-1 win here over the St. Louis Cardinals, manager Johnny Oates admitted he was still considering numerous options, but wouldn't speculate beyond that. "Anybody still here has a chance to make our pitching staff," he said.

Mark Williamson had just pitched six strong innings, Fernando Valenzuela had run his scoreless inning streak to 14 and left-hander Brad Pennington had escaped an ugly ninth inning without allowing a run.

All three, in some way, will figure into the final decisions, which probably won't be made until the team returns to Baltimore next weekend.

"And don't leave out [Anthony] Telford," said Oates.

Telford has the highest ERA of the four, but it is an impressive 2.19 (in 12 1/3 innings). The right-hander is believed to be the subject of ongoing trade talks because he's out of options and almost certainly wouldn't clear waivers.

rTC Pennington can be optioned to the minor leagues, and that's a possibility even though the 23-year-old rookie hasn't allowed a run in six appearances (7 2/3 innings). He would figure to be affected most by the certain inactivity during the season's first month.

Oates has said that one performance wouldn't make or break anybody, but the bottom line is that Williamson, Valenzuela and Telford are down to their last outing.

"We're going to make our decision based on what has happened throughout spring training," said Oates.

"We'll look at every pitch if we have to, and see who we feel best meets our needs over the long haul. I haven't made up my mind yet. We [he and the front office] are going to have some meetings in the next few days."

While the front office tries to decide which trades it wants to make or not make, the pitchers continue to make the decisions difficult, while at the same time improving their stock.

That is the approach being taken by Williamson, who missed most of last year after having elbow surgery. Before Fernandomania II became a serious issue, he appeared to have the No. 5 spot in the rotation locked up. With a 1.00 ERA (18 innings), he hasn't done anything to dispel that notion, but Valenzuela has refused to drop out of the picture.

"[Yesterday] was the best I've felt all year," Williamson said after allowing five hits and not walking a batter. "It was a relatively easy six innings and I probably could've gone more. It felt like I had some zip.

"My whole goal coming in [to spring training] was to stay healthy and prove I could get people out. I think I've accomplished that."

Williamson said he hasn't let the competition within the staff affect his approach. "I'm at the point now where I just want to make the team," he said.

"There are a lot of clubs out there who need pitching," said Williamson. "If there's not a place for me here, at least other teams have seen that I'm healthy and can pitch.

"I think Fernando is in the same situation I'm in. He's not just pitching for the Orioles, he's pitching for everyone else in baseball to see what he can do."

Williamson said that Valenzuela's presence has not put any pressure on him. "Not at all," he said. "This is the most relaxed and easy spring training I've ever had.

"I've been like a little kid at Christmas -- I've thrown all my pitches without pain. I'm free and easy again. It's kind of like having a new lease on life."

Whether that new lease on life includes a place in the Orioles' starting rotation remains to be seen. "I don't know how good he felt, but he threw the ball well," said Oates, who initiated the idea of trying Williamson as the fifth starter. "That's the most pitches (77) I've ever seen him throw."

Valenzuela's outings

Date ... ... Opp. ... IP ... H ... ER ... BB ... SO

3/11 ... .. .. Tor. ... 2 .. .. 2 .. 0 .. .. 1 ... 2

3/15 ... .. .. Min. ... 3 .. .. 1 .. 0 .. .. 1 ... 0

3/19 ... .. .. Phi. ... 5 .. .. 2 .. 0 .. .. 1 ... 0

3/24 ... .. .. Cin. ... 2 .. .. 0 .. 0 .. .. 1 ... 0

3/27 ... .. .. St.L. .. 2 .. .. 4 .. 0 .. .. 0 ... 2

Tot. ... ... ... .. .. 14 .. .. 9 .. 0 .. .. 4 ... 4

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