Hentgen finishes spring in a fall

VIERA, FLA. — VIERA, Fla. -- For now, the Orioles can watch Pat Hentgen surrender three home runs and dismiss them as wind-assisted fly balls. They can see his 6.00 ERA combined with an 0-3 record and say they're soon-to-be-forgotten spring training statistics. They also know the next time Hentgen takes the ball, it's Opening Day vs. Pedro Martinez at Camden Yards.

Hentgen concluded an unsatisfying spring yesterday with a curious pitching line for a pitcher whose reputation is built around command. The Florida Marlins reached him for three home runs and five earned runs in five innings of a 5-3 exhibition win.


Hentgen, anointed the Orioles' No. 1 starter immediately upon signing a two-year, $9.6 million contract in December, also walked three, hit a batter and threw two wild pitches among his 90 pitches.

Hentgen will leave Florida tomorrow night with a the highest ERA among the Orioles' anticipated rotation, after surrendering 12 runs in his last two starts.


"At this stage of spring training, you don't have much choice. You're ready. That's it," Hentgen said. "The season starts and you go every fifth day."

Hargrove cited Hentgen's impressive resume for naming him Opening Day starter over the Orioles' leading winner from last season, Jose Mercedes. Hentgen owns a Cy Young Award, eight straight seasons of at least 10 wins and tenacity equal to any other pitcher in the game. But Hargrove is also unable to gloss over mistakes with power, and Hentgen's spring has been imprecise.

Yesterday's variable proved to be a stiff breeze to right field that helped Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee drive two opposite-field home runs in the second and third inning. The first blast merely tied the score. The third-inning drive followed a troubling four-pitch, two-out walk to Mike Lowell with no one on base. It was followed immediately by Jeff Abbott's bases-empty home run.

"I could've thrown the exact same game, and if Derrek Lee pops up the hanging cutter, you're telling me I pitched a great game. But he didn't. He hit it over the wall," said Hentgen, his stare fixed on the clubhouse floor. "That inning would have ended then. Who knows if [Abbott] hits the solo home run afterward? It's spring training. I'm trying my best. I'm going to give up home runs. I always have. My best season ever [1996] I gave up home runs."

Yesterday's wind-tunnel effect wasn't lost on Hargrove.

"Those balls were fly balls," the manager said. "One was a hanging breaking ball. That's bothersome. The other two were fastballs up over the plate. That's bothersome. The fact still remains that without the gale blowing to right field they're just fly balls."

Hentgen has surrendered six home runs in 24 innings this spring. Of more concern has been Hentgen's inconsistent location with his 88-mph fastball. His five strikeouts in five starts failed to keep pace with his six walks.

"Normally my fastball has been my best command pitch. Today it wasn't. Today it got me behind in the count. Then you try to spot the ball and you end up aiming it," Hentgen said.


The Orioles believe they may have discovered a clue to Hentgen's allergic reaction to spring. Pitching coach Mark Wiley spotted a defect in Hentgen's delivery from the stretch that Hargrove considered significant.

"That's what spring training is all about," said Hargrove, who found himself asking the same line of question for Hentgen's second consecutive start. "When the bell rings everybody takes it up another notch. We'll see what Pat does. I'd rather a guy have a day like today then pitch well during the season than pitch lights-out all spring then mess all over himself once the season starts. I've seen that happen a thousand times."

Hentgen's reliance on unforgiving command leaves him vulnerable to slow starts. He recovered last season to earn 11 of his 15 wins for the St. Louis Cardinals after June 11. A new team offers different circumstances. The Orioles are counting on Hentgen for 190 innings and a sense of stability. His effort is a given. Renowned as a dogged competitor, Hentgen refused to offer excuses or rationalize that he was concentrating on a certain pitch or mechanical flaw.

"I take the same attitude in all spring training starts that I do during the season," Hentgen said. "I don't like going out there just trying to work on something. I go out the and try to get people out. I had a bad third inning."