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Coppinger moves up in class


Rocky Coppinger, the Orioles pitching prospect who has dominated in the minors this year, threw a 3-0 shutout in his first start for Double-A Bowie at Reading yesterday.

Is it completely absurd to think that Coppinger, who went 7-1 with a 1.57 ERA at Single-A Frederick before being promoted last week, could be with the Orioles by the end of the year?

"No, not completely absurd," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles farm director. "It's not normal, but it's not absurd."

It's not normal, but then neither is Coppinger.

"He's got two above-average pitches," said Thrift, referring to Coppinger's fastball and slider, "that he can throw on the black [of the plate]. He can do things that it takes most pitchers years to learn how to do."

For example: Coppinger, a right-hander, already has mastered the art of what is called going up the ladder, one fastball just slightly higher than the previous fastball. Hitters have a tendency to chase pitches going up the ladder.

By promoting him to Double-A last week, the Orioles have put themselves in a position to get him to the big leagues by late August or early September if he continues to impress. He could be in Double-A until the All-Star break and then be promoted to Triple-A Rochester until the end of August.

If the Orioles, who are looking for a No. 4 and No. 5 starter to establish themselves, are still looking then, Coppinger could get a shot.

Orioles scouting director Gary Nickels said it's "possible" that Coppinger could handle the jump to the majors.

"He stepped into Double-A today and it didn't faze him," Nickels said.

"That's one of the things you like about him -- he's a bulldog, a tenacious type of competitor."

Arbitration irks McDonald . . .

Ben McDonald's arbitration case will be heard this morning at a local hotel, and he will be there. About nine hours later, after listening to Orioles representatives try to convince an arbitrator why McDonald should be paid $3.2 million instead of the $4.5 million he has asked for, he starts against the Seattle Mariners.

"You might've guessed it would fall on a day I pitch," McDonald said, "and that complicates the process. . . . I wish it never came to this."

There have been no negotiations on a possible settlement. "That's what's aggravating for me," McDonald said. "We've always worked for an agreement in the past. This time, it's like we're forced to go to arbitration because of the lack of negotiations on their part. . . . Maybe it's a new stance they're taking."

McDonald says he thinks he will win. "I think without a doubt we've got a lot better issues to bring up," he said. "It's pretty clear when you look at the case."

But he acknowledged that "any time you go to arbitration, you take that chance of losing. Whether I win or lose, I'm still going to be upset. To me, it could've been avoided in the beginning. . . . For them not to call is a little hard to swallow."

McDonald has said numerous times that he would like to stay with the Orioles. Is this arbitration case making him reconsider that stance?

"It could have some bearing on a choice like that," McDonald said. "I don't know. I don't even like to think about the whole thing."

. . . as O's hold firm on Mussina

Mike Mussina's arbitration case will be heard June 22, if the Orioles and the pitcher don't agree to a multi-year deal before then. In negotiations Saturday between the team and Mussina's agent, the Orioles held firm on their offer of about $10 million over three years (with an option for a fourth year). The two sides will talk again tomorrow, when the Orioles may present a two-year offer.

Gomez lightens up, on scale

Leo Gomez, who has lost the third base job to Jeff Manto, has dropped a few pounds and that pleases Orioles manager Phil Regan. But Gomez remains unhappy that he is not playing.

"What's the difference?" Gomez said, referring to his weight loss. "I'm happy I lost weight, but so what?

"They didn't say anything last year about my weight when I was hitting. I really don't understand what's happening."

Gomez has met with Regan a few times and expressed his unhappiness -- although he agrees that Manto, who has played well, should stay in the lineup.

"I don't have a problem with that," Gomez said.

"He deserves to be in the lineup."

Nevertheless, Gomez says, he wants to play. "I don't want to come in and make money watching the games," he said. "I think the only thing I can worry about is getting ready to come in . . . when I get a chance."

That he did last night, going 1-for-2 with a two-run double last night, raising his average to .217.

Gomez started against Seattle's Randy Johnson on May 26 and went 0-for-4, then again four days later against California's Mark Langston. "It's not easy to not play for seven days and then face Randy Johnson," he said. "It's not easy to not play for four days and then face [Dennis] Eckersley [on May 25]. It's not easy to not play and then face Mark Langston. Nobody but nobody can do a good job playing once a week."

Gomez lost his job on May 17 when his average fell to .208 and he had two RBIs in his first 16 games.

Around the horn

First baseman Paul Carey cleared waivers and was outrighted to the roster of Triple-A Rochester. The move would allow the Orioles to add a player not on the 40-man roster -- such as Rochester reliever Terry Clark. . . . Damon Buford, demoted by the Orioles Friday, joined Triple-A Rochester yesterday, 24 hours before he was required to report. Buford started in center field in the Red Wings' 15-3 win over Syracuse, going 1-for-3 with two walks and a sacrifice fly in the Red Wings' 15-3 win over Syracuse. . . . Sherman Obando, sent down May 19, is hitting .345 for the Red Wings with three homers and seven RBIs. Obando has started at first twice, in right field three times, and designated hitter twice. . . . Arthur Rhodes makes his second start for Rochester tonight, against Richmond. . . . Seen behind the batting cage last night: A's Rickey Henderson and Orioles rookie Curtis Goodwin, talking shop. . . . The Orioles have signed No. 17 pick Jason Le Cronier, an outfielder from McNeese State.

Parting shot

Seen at last night's game: Kato Kaelin, the former house guest of O. J. Simpson and part-time murder trial witness. Kaelin's handlers asked the Orioles if he could throw out the first ball, but the request was politely declined.

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