DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Two weeks ago, Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina was home in Pennsylvania fighting off a killer case of poison ivy and wondering if there would be any baseball this year.
As it turned out, there is baseball, though in a condensed form. Mussina, two weeks removed from the poison ivy and a week removed from his first organized workout, found himself on the Dunedin Stadium mound yesterday taking a refresher course in the fine art of pitching. His impossible test cases were the Toronto Blue Jays: Roberto Alomar, John Olerud, Joe Carter, Paul Molitor.
He survived, throwing two satisfactory innings in the Orioles' 9-6 exhibition loss to Toronto. Mussina allowed two hits and a run and struck out one, and after a shaky start, he threw consistently in and at the fringes of the strike zone.
But Mussina grimaced afterward when asked if he felt comfortable pitching again, after a layoff of nearly eight months.
"I felt," he said, "as sharp as a coconut."
Expect a lot of this, pitchers feeling as though they're trying to throw a round ball through a square hole. Mussina might be one of the best pitchers in the game, but the fact is he's still working himself back into shape, and will continue to do so well into the regular season.
"I don't expect to be at midseason form at the beginning of this season," Mussina said. "That's unrealistic. I can't expect to be in that kind of shape or condition or level of effectiveness.
"None of the hitters are going to be in midseason form, either. Maybe we [pitchers] will get there before them. Maybe we'll get there ahead of them."
Orioles manager Phil Regan doesn't think so. The early season advantage, he agrees, will probably belong to the hitters. Pitchers, particularly starters, will spend the first weeks of the season rebuilding conditioning, endurance, touch.
The hitters, generally speaking, need only refine their timing. You can pick up a bat on April 7 and be back in a groove a week later. Orioles designated hitter Harold Baines, who mashed a three-run homer against Texas Thursday, says he's in a groove.
But unless you happen to be Sidd Finch, you cannot begin pitching in earnest on April 7 and be ready a week later.
"I think you'll see a lot of pitchers go through a tired-arm stage," Regan said. "They always go through that anyway early."
This year, early means the regular season.
"I think you're going to see a lot more high-scoring games than you normally would early in the year," Regan said.
The Orioles' manager believes that pitchers will first be up to speed by their fourth start of the year, or about three weeks into the season. But the incline between now and then is steady and steep.
Mike Flanagan, the Orioles pitching coach, said that resisting the temptation of rushing pitchers will be critical. Just because Mussina looked OK throwing two innings yesterday doesn't mean he's ready to throw five or six innings in his next outing.
"You've got to be careful," Flanagan said. "I think it's going to be very important to build up to five innings. We can't rush them to five innings. Once we get them there, we let them go."
Until then, Flanagan plans to keep meticulous counts of all pitches, including those thrown in the bullpen. On Thursday, Scott Klingenbeck threw 17 pitches in two innings against Texas -- and 61 more in the bullpen preparing for those two innings. "Those all factor in," Flanagan said.
The first time through the rotation, pitchers are, generally speaking, being limited to 24 pitches during games. The next time out, about 40. Then somewhere around 60.
Regan thinks that by the regular season begins, his starting pitchers could go five innings, and at the most, six.
The situation makes it tough, Mussina said, and that makes sense. What he might've said is that com
ing back on such short notice is like trying to crack a coconut with a baseball.
Exhibition opponent: Houston Astros
Site: Kissimmee, Fla.
Time: 1:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Sid Fernandez vs. Astros' Darryl Kile
UPS AND DOWNS
The good and the bad from the Orioles' 9-6 exhibition loss to the Blue Jays yesterday:
HIGHLIGHTS * Brady Anderson hit Pat Hentgen's second pitch of the game for a homer.
* Catcher Greg Zaun had two doubles and two RBIs on his birthday.
* First baseman Paul Carey hit a three-run double in the ninth.
LOWLIGHTS * Anderson left the game with a slightly strained right hamstring.
* Orioles pitchers were hammered for 15 hits over nine innings.
* Reliever Armando Benitez allowed four hits and three runs in two innings.
* The Orioles played poorly on defense, botching several plays and committing an error on a play at first.