FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A dark horse has emerged in the Orioles' starting rotation derby, and he's sneaking up on people with a new pitch.
Rick Bauer, who played a key role in the bullpen the past two seasons, will have his innings stretched out this spring like a starter, Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley said. And early in camp, Bauer has made team officials take notice with some impressive throwing sessions.
Bauer, 27, was used mostly as a starter earlier in his professional career, but most Orioles officials felt he needed a third pitch to complement his sinker and slider combination in order to become an effective big league starter.
With the two-pitch arsenal, Bauer posted a respectable 3.98 ERA in 56 appearances with the Orioles as a rookie in 2002. But last year, he was languishing with a 5.03 ERA when the club sent him to Triple-A Ottawa in July.
Bauer had been tinkering in practice with a split-fingered fastball - a sinking off-speed pitch - and going to Ottawa gave him a chance to perfect it.
Ottawa pitching coach Steve McCatty gave Bauer a key pointer, getting him to keep his fingers on top of the ball through the release point, and the results were striking.
"It definitely is a good pitch for him because he's a sinker/slider guy, and this gives hitters a different look," McCatty said.
In seven starts for Ottawa, Bauer went 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA. He returned to the Orioles' bullpen and posted a 3.54 ERA over his final 10 appearances, routinely throwing the split-fingered pitch against teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
"I was able to pitch with two pitches for those two years, but I did need a third pitch," Bauer said. "Everyone knew that. I've still got to fine-tune [the split-fingered pitch] a little bit, but that's what spring training is for."
For now, Bauer appears to rank eighth on the rotation depth chart, behind Sidney Ponson, Eric DuBose, Rodrigo Lopez, Kurt Ainsworth, Matt Riley, Omar Daal and John Stephens. But it's a wide-open race behind Ponson, and the chart could change quickly once the exhibition games start Thursday.
"I know I can do the job [as a starter]; it's just a matter of what the team needs," Bauer said. "With the guys we've got fighting for spots [in the rotation], I don't really see too many questions, other than inexperience."
Roberts' back flares up
Second baseman Brian Roberts was in uniform yesterday but did not practice because of back spasms. Roberts said it's a recurring injury that pops up for him about twice a year. He also missed two games because of back spasms last July in Seattle.
This time, "it's day-to-day," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said.
Riley returns to mound
Left-hander Matt Riley pitched off a mound for the first time since last Saturday after missing five days with a sprained left ankle. The injury left Riley a few days behind the other starting pitchers, but that will even out soon.
Riley should be ready to face hitters by the first of two intrasquad games Tuesday.
"I'm about 90 or 95 percent, I'd say," Riley said. "It felt good out there today."
The Orioles signed 11 of their players to one-year deals, including Riley and fellow left-handed pitcher DuBose, meaning they have signed 26 of the 39 players on their 40-man roster.