When Mike Trombley decided to sign with the Orioles in November, it wasn't with the incentive of becoming the team's closer. He planned on being a bridge to the ninth-inning specialist, never suspecting that the bullpen would be under construction a week into the season.
A slight tear in Mike Timlin's abdominal muscle forced him to the disabled list April 2 and Trombley into a different role. If there's a slim lead to be protected in the ninth inning, perhaps tonight when the Orioles begin a three-game series in Kansas City, Trombley most likely will be the one standing guard.
It's a scenario he couldn't imagine, even after saving 24 games for the Minnesota Twins last season. Even after picking up one of the club's four saves in spring training. Even after finding out about Timlin's injury.
"When I came here, I was not expecting to close at all," he said. "I've seen Mike Timlin throw, and I know he's a heck of a pitcher. As far as I'm concerned, he's the closer."
Trombley won't even concede that he's the reliever who most often will keep Timlin's seat warm until he returns. Ask about his added responsibilities, and the former Duke Blue Devil begins rattling off names such as Ryan, McElroy and Groom. Any of the club's non-starters could get the call from manager Mike Hargrove, which would suit Trombley just fine.
"Any combination that will help us win is what we're looking for," he said. "I'm not worried too much about it. I don't mind pitching the fifth, the sixth, the seventh. I really don't care. Let's just get Mike back healthy. That's what is best for us."
Until last season, Trombley's most extensive time as a closer came in 1996. He recorded 10 saves in 24 games with the Twins' Triple-A Salt Lake affiliate, and six more in the majors after being recalled June 2. But it wasn't until last summer, when the Twins traded Rick Aguilera, that Trombley became the first option.
He filled the shoes, but they weren't always a comfortable fit. Trombley, who will turn 33 Friday, just doesn't see himself as a closer, no matter how often he's used that way.
"I'm not the guy who throws 95 miles an hour," he said. "I have an average or below-average fastball. I rely on my breaking stuff and spotting the ball. That doesn't mean I can't close, but I've always been a setup guy.
"My strength is being able to pitch a lot. I like the fact that I can come in and pitch every day and I don't care for how long. If it's for one batter or two innings or whatever, I have no problem at all. People get so caught up over, 'Why didn't he call my name?' Don't read so much into it. Grover's the manager and a good baseball man. Have faith in him that he believes it's the right situation at the time. Just pitch when your name is called."
And do it in the same manner each time. Attitude and approach, Trombley discovered, shouldn't vary depending on which portion of the game you inherit.
"That's what helped me last season," he said. "I kind of looked at it differently when I was closing, and I learned as I went along that it wasn't the right way. You've got to do what got you there. Don't change anything.
"You've still got to get guys out, no matter what inning it is. There's still a batter up there and you've got to get him out. Just go at him and if it works, it works. The only difference is, a lot of times you're the last man standing."
When that happens for Trombley this season, he'll be supported by sturdier legs than when he initially took over for Aguilera.
"When I got my first save last year in Anaheim, I had the jitters," he said. "I was so nervous because it was the first time I was out there in the ninth inning, with a one-run lead. I'm like, 'Geez, there's no one else. I'm out here for the duration.' As time went on and as I learned, it got easier. I realized, 'Hey, it's just batters up there. It's not the end of the world.'
"You're going to do well some days and do poorly some days. Take it in stride. Don't take it too seriously because you might be out there the next day. Just like in the Masters. You may bogey one hole. Forget about it. Worry about the next one."
So far this season, there have been fewer concerns about the Orioles' bullpen. Trombley, Buddy Groom, Chuck McElroy, B. J. Ryan and Al Reyes have combined for 13 1/3 scoreless innings. The only save has been recorded by Groom, a left-handed specialist who uncharacteristically went three innings Thursday to finish a 6-2 win over the Cleveland Indians. Reyes, Ryan and Tim Worrell have accounted for three of the club's five victories.
Trombley twice has pitched the ninth, when the margin was too large for him to be credited with a save. Both times, the leads were safe. It's a concept that didn't always play out last season when Orioles relievers were exhausted and ineffective.
As a unit, they were 17-27 with a 4.89 ERA, allowing runs in 89 of 145 games. They blew 25 save tries, though only five in the second half. The starters were getting knocked around early, the bullpen phone kept ringing and the losses kept coming.
"The difference between last year and now is the starters are going deeper," said bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "After Moose [Mike Mussina] pitched, it was kamikaze down there. The first, second, third inning every night, these [relievers] were in ballgames. It wasn't fair to judge those guys on that because the starters didn't do their jobs. Those guys never had a chance to rejuvenate. This year, the starters are taking us into the fifth and sixth innings."
Until Timlin returns, the ninth belongs to Trombley.
"It's a luxury," Hendricks said, "to have a guy like him around."
Opponent: K.C. Royals
Site: Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, MO.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL(1090 AM)
Starters: O's Sidney Ponson (0-0,9.00) vs. Royals' Chad Durbin (1-0,1.50)