Relievers stumble out of gate


MINNEAPOLIS -- The Orioles should be kicking small-market butt, but last night they fell to feeble Minnesota after losing their opener to helpless Kansas City.

Bud Selig is 2-0.

Peter Angelos is 0-2.


Two games into the season, and the Orioles soon might need to promote a minor-league pitcher to bolster their 12-man staff. Two games into the season, and the bullpen already is a disaster.

Yet, manager Phil Regan hardly seemed concerned after last night's 7-4 loss to the Twins. Regan not only insisted the relievers were throwing well, he predicted they'll show marked improvement soon.

"They've only had three weeks of spring training, and usually, it's six," Regan said. "Every day, they're going to get better. They're running more and throwing more. That's the only way to get stronger and sharper."

Still, all the relievers had to do was get through this weekend, and then everyone could have relaxed. By Monday, the starting pitchers each will have taken one turn, and middle-inning relief will become less prominent.

The question now is whether the Orioles' bullpen is truly as bad as it looks, or if it should be judged as if this was merely the fourth week of spring training.

The opponent last night wasn't the '27 Yankees. The opponent was a team that got shut out by Boston in its opener, a team that lost Kent Hrbek, Shane Mack and Dave Winfield over the winter.

The Orioles are playing awful defense -- four errors in two games, including two last night by shortstop Cal Ripken -- but the problem isn't the defense.

Nor is the problem an offense that couldn't mount a comeback against that vaunted Twins middle-relief corps -- Dave Stevens, Mark Guthrie and Kevin Campbell.

True, leadoff man Brady Anderson is 0-for-9 with five strikeouts. True, No. 2 hitter Bret Barberie is 1-for-7. But Ripken had three hits last night, Harold Baines two and Andy Van Slyke hit a home run and double.

Which brings us back to the 'pen.

"Right now, it's a war for the middle innings," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said. "Look at most of the box scores, and that's where the war is being waged."

Do the Orioles seriously think they can win the AL East with this group? Alan Mills, arguably their most reliable reliever, has faced eight batters this season, and retired one.

Starter Ben McDonald wasn't especially sharp last night -- he needed 86 pitches to complete five innings. Still, two of the three runs he allowed were unearned, and he left with a 4-3 lead.

The first reliever was Brad Pennington, who retired more left-handed hitters Wednesday against Kansas City (two) than he did in the entire 1994 season.

So much for his hot streak.

With one out in the sixth, Pennington allowed a double by pinch hitter Jerald Clark, a walk to rookie Marty Cordova and a two-run double by the left-handed-hitting Matt Merullo.

Enter Mills.

Two days ago, he gave up an RBI double to Royals No. 9 hitter Chico Lind on his only pitch. Last night, he hit David McCarty with his first pitch, then allowed a single by Twins No. 8 hitter Scott Leius with his third.

Luckily for Mills, McCarty got caught in a rundown. Mills then struck out Pat Meares to end the inning, but in the seventh, his problems only continued.

Single by Chuck Knoblauch. Walk to Alex Cole. Wild pitch, advancing the runners. Intentional walk to Kirby Puckett, loading the bases.

A two-run single by Clark past a drawn-in infield increased the Twins' lead to 7-4. Armando Benitez relieved Mills and struck out Cordova and Merullo, but the Orioles never recovered.

It was Mills' sixth outing, including spring training, and Pennington's fifth. They're still adjusting to game situations. And, as Flanagan said, "They're walking into a mess every time they come in."

Whatever, Regan figures to stay cautious with this starters through the weekend. The man knows what he's doing -- none of his starters suffered arm trouble when he was Cleveland's pitching coach last season.

The way Regan sees it, Mike Mussina will be ready to pitch seven innings in his next start, and so will McDonald. Presumably, the same will hold for the other starters -- Sid Fernandez, Kevin Brown and Arthur Rhodes.

Thus, the problem should diminish by Monday, when Mussina faces Milwaukee in the home opener. But that makes the next three days critical -- "very critical," Regan said.

Who will be first out of the 'pen after Fernandez pitches his five or six innings tonight? Jamie Moyer, Wednesday's loser, is available. So is Mike Oquist. And (gulp) we still haven't seen Jesse Orosco and Doug Jones.

At least Benitez showed progress last night. Regan said he threw 21 straight fastballs in his dismal outing in Kansas City, but last night he mixed in breaking pitches, and went two perfect innings.

Pennington, meanwhile, pitched the way Benitez did Wednesday, relying too much on his fastball. It's scary that the Orioles are relying so heavily on the two young pitchers, but again, Regan seemed not the least bit concerned.

"Right now, I'm excited when I see a Pennington and Benitez, left and right, with that kind of stuff," he said. "I can envision down the line that those two kids are going to be outstanding relief pitchers.

"We need to baby them, bring them along, give them the experience they need. I see a tremendous difference in Pennington. I think Benitez can come along the same way. He just needs the confidence."

The results look horrible.

The manager sounds content.

Which do you trust, your eyes or your ears?

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