Questions mark O's pitching rotation


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Judging by how the Orioles have set part of their rotation, Rick Helling and Pat Hentgen no longer are competing for the fifth spot.

Sidney Ponson has been told that he will start the April 4 series opener against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards, the fourth game of the 2003 season. And Jason Johnson confirmed that he'll make the next day's start.

So far, manager Mike Hargrove has confirmed only that Rodrigo Lopez, a 15-game winner last year, will pitch on Opening Day against the Cleveland Indians. He hedged when asked if Ponson would face the Indians, saying, "We don't know yet."

Ponson and Johnson have been informed of their assignments, leaving the No. 2 and 3 spots open. Both Helling and left-hander Omar Daal are lined up for the second game next Wednesday at Camden Yards, and Hentgen is lined up for April 3 after holding the Minnesota Twins to one run over six innings in his last appearance. But Helling or Hentgen most likely will head to the bullpen as a long reliever if unable to crack the rotation.

The remaining riddle will be solved once Hargrove announces his starter for Saturday's final exhibition game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium. Helling is scheduled to throw Friday, one day before Hentgen, but he could be held back until the weekend. Whichever pitcher Hargrove chooses - and he has a tentative choice in mind - will join the rotation.

Ponson is 1-8 with a 6.13 ERA lifetime against the Red Sox. The Indians might not have provided a better alternative since he's 0-5 with an 8.80 ERA in nine career games against them. But they're not regarded as a contender this season and probably would finish lower in the American League Central if it didn't include Kansas City and Detroit.

The Orioles wanted to lower Ponson in the rotation so he wasn't matched up as often against the other team's elite pitchers. He was the No. 3 starter coming out of camp last year.

"Either way, I still have to get outs and win games," said Ponson, who had his third straight difficult outing yesterday, allowing four earned runs and eight hits in 6 1/3 innings. "I have to work hard and pitch every fifth day. And after the first day, it's all the same anyway."

Not to Johnson, who is concerned about having his turn skipped because of openings in the schedule during the first month. He's 1-1 with a 6.19 ERA in 16 innings this spring.

"I just don't know what this means," he said of the April 5 assignment, which technically makes him the No. 5 starter. "I was told I'm the fourth starter, but I'm pitching the fifth game of the year. Nobody knows what's going on.

"I better not be the one being skipped because I've worked my butt off. The last few years they haven't skipped the fifth starter, they've given everyone an extra day's rest. I hope they do the same thing this year. But I don't plan on being the fifth starter."

Daal said he's recovered from the inflammation in his left shoulder that has required daily treatments. He pitched six innings at the minor-league complex on Sunday, allowing one run while estimating that he threw 80 pitches.

"It went great. I had good command of my pitches," said Daal, who still hasn't been told when he'll make his first start of the regular season.

"I'm fine now. I've been able to stretch my arm out pretty good. I'm ready to go."

Segui progressing

David Segui had more X-rays taken on his broken right thumb yesterday, and the Orioles' medical staff gave him the green light to start swinging a bat.

Segui took some swings and said it was "virtually painless."

Segui broke the thumb March 12, and the Orioles' originally said he would miss seven weeks, with the first four in a cast. Back then, Segui suggested he might be ready Opening Day. That might have been optimistic, but yesterday he said, "It will not take seven weeks. You can write that."

Catching plans

Hargrove hasn't quantified exactly how much more he expects backup catcher Brook Fordyce to play this season, but it will be more than last year, when Fordyce started 39 games compared with 122 for Geronimo Gil.

"Brook's had a good spring," Hargrove said. "There's some things he's worked on and done. He's made some adjustments that give you reason to play him more."

Hargrove, first base coach Rick Dempsey and bench coach Sam Perlozzo have worked with Fordyce, getting him to shorten the time it takes to throw to second base. The major-league average for catchers is 2.0 seconds, Hargrove said, and Fordyce had two throws this past weekend that were 1.94 and 1.96.

"As we go into it, Geronimo's the No. 1 guy," Hargrove said, "but that could change."

New security measures

With the war going on in Iraq, the Orioles announced new security measures for Camden Yards. Everything taken into the ballpark will be inspected. Purses, diaper bags, backpacks and camera bags will be restricted in size, and no hard-sided coolers, thermos bottles, glass bottles or cans will be permitted.

Also, there will be no re-entry into the ballpark once a person leaves, and curbside parking will be restricted to vehicles dropping off and picking up disabled guests.

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