FORT MYERS, Fla. -- No one is going to remember six months from now that left-hander Arthur Rhodes gave up just one hit in his first six exhibition innings, or that he overpowered the Boston Red Sox in the Orioles' 11-2 victory yesterday at City of Palms Park.
No one is going to look that far back, but if the Orioles reach the World Series, it will be because the pitching staff took a big step forward. So the early outings of the man projected at the far end of the starting rotation could be very significant.
Rhodes struck out five in his second exhibition appearance and continues to look very much like the young pitcher who closed out the strike-shortened 1994 season with back-to-back shutouts to win American League Pitcher of the Week honors. He ran off six straight outs in a two-inning spring debut last week and did not give up a hit until the third inning of yesterday's game.
Manager Phil Regan was very pleased. He knows what a consistent Rhodes would do for the depth of the rotation. So far, so good.
"He's got a lot of confidence right now," Regan said. "That has carried over from last year."
Regan also has to be a little suspicious, because he has looked at this picture from more than one angle. He got a more dispassionate look at Rhodes through the eyes of a Cleveland Indians pitching coach. He knows -- perhaps as well as anyone -- that opposing clubs used to look forward to seeing Rhodes.
"I always thought we would score some runs off him," Regan said. "He was so inconsistent that we always figured that if you waited around long enough, he would start walking people and you would score some runs."
Sound familiar? Even Rhodes knew that other clubs were waiting for him to fail. He says now that he even knew that his former manager and pitching coach were waiting for him to fail. He may even have been waiting for himself to fail. He's not doing that anymore.
"I'm at that point where it's time to go out there and throw strikes," he said. "I can't do things the way I did two years ago. Throwing the ball up, down, anywhere but in the strike zone. I still have to show that I can do it over a full season, but if I throw strikes, I should be able to go out and win some games."
It is all about maturity. Rhodes has been the Orioles' most promising young pitcher so long that he is starting to feel old. He would come up and pitch well for a while, but always fell victim to his limited repertoire and erratic control.
"When I was 23 years old, I was just out there throwing the ball," he said. "I didn't have any coaching and I didn't have any mechanics. Two years later, I'm getting the ball down in the strike zone and I'm mixing in the slider and the changeup. I'm a totally different pitcher."
Could it be that simple? Did Rhodes finally grow up to be the pitcher the Orioles have been waiting for since they signed him out of high school in 1988? Could the club that stubbornly refused to trade him all those times turn out to be right after all?
That remained in question even after Rhodes shut out the Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers in his final two starts last year to solidify his place in the club's plans for 1995. Perhaps it still is in question, but his first two exhibition outings have erased any doubt that he will start the season in the rotation.
"I've got confidence in all my pitches right now," Rhodes said. "I said to myself last year, 'Hey, if you want to be a major-league pitcher, you have to go out and throw like a major-league PTC pitcher.' Then we had the strike and I was right back thinking, 'What am I going to do now? You might lose everything.' But it felt like I had never been away.
"I feel real strong. I'm just trying to go out there and throw the ball the way I did the last two games [of 1994] and pick up where I left off. Last year, I was keeping the ball in the strike zone and now I'm doing the same thing."
The upside for the Orioles could be a starting rotation that does not have a weak link.
Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald are well on their way to stardom. Sid Fernandez came to camp in the best shape of his career. Kevin Brown, who made his Orioles debut yesterday, is coming off a difficult 1994, but is only a year removed from a 20-win season.
The downside is not nearly as dramatic. If Rhodes falters, the club will have swingman Jamie Moyer ready to step into the fifth slot in the rotation, but it is starting to look like that won't be necessary.
Exhibition foe: Philadelphia Phillies
Site: Clearwater, Fla.
Time: 1:05 p.m.
Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina vs. Phillies' Tommy Greene.