In a season when the Orioles were willing to gamble by stocking their rotation with unproven pitchers, hopeful that the growing pains wouldn't leave them doubled over, it figures that a 23-year-old rookie has emerged as their staff ace.
All they had to do was search the Eastern League.
Making his second start at Camden Yards, Daniel Cabrera went the distance for the first time in his brief major league career, and Melvin Mora stuck around long enough to hit a home run in the Orioles' 5-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves last night before 33,579.
The Orioles (30-39) won for only the sixth time in 22 games and avoided falling 11 games below .500 for the first time this year.
Larry Bigbie had three doubles, Miguel Tejada drove in two runs and Javy Lopez went 2-for-4 with a triple in his first game against his former team since leaving as a free agent. He scored in the eighth inning on a single by Jay Gibbons.
Playing for the first time in a week, Mora left the game in the fifth inning with continuing pain in his left foot, and he's expected to miss the rest of the series. The Orioles were fortunate that Cabrera stuck around much longer.
His ninth start in the majors produced the Orioles' first shutout by a rookie since Josh Towers blanked the Montreal Expos on June 8, 2001. None of the Braves reached third base, and only one got to second.
"It sure makes my job a lot easier," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "The kid had everything tonight. He had good velocity, good location, he used his changeup and curveball. He gives you innings and keeps you in the game. He's been very consistent."
Cabrera (4-3), who was pitching at Double-A Bowie when the season began, allowed four hits and struck out six while winning for the first time in almost a month. He hopped over the first base line each time he returned to the mound, an appropriate action from someone who has provided his team with such a huge lift.
In nine outings, Cabrera has gone six or more innings on six occasions. No Orioles starter had gone eight innings in more than a month before last night. He's given up three earned runs or fewer in seven starts.
"I guess you would put that guy in the category of effectively wild," Chipper Jones said. "He was up, down, in, out, but he stayed in the strike zone pretty consistently."
The bullpen didn't stir last night until the seventh, when Jason Grimsley began throwing. Grimsley still was warming up in the eighth when Eddie Perez walked with two outs, but he took a seat after Rafael Furcal lined out. Jorge Julio warmed in the ninth.
"You never know where the game is going to go," Mazzilli said.
It didn't leave Cabrera's grasp. After throwing his 103rd pitch for the final out, he knelt on the mound and pointed skyward, barely able to contain his excitement.
"Everything was good tonight," he said, dispensing with the usual interpreter. "I had all my stuff for the first time in the major leagues."
Mazzilli never approached Cabrera to see if he was tiring. "Some things are best left unsaid. I was watching him," Mazzilli said.
The last time Atlanta visited Camden Yards, the Orioles were swept in a three-game series in 2000. But so much has changed for the Braves (33-39), losers of four in a row and 11 of 16.
Making his second start since ligament-reconstructive surgery in 2003, Paul Byrd was charged with three runs in 6 1/3 innings. Tejada's sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the fifth gave the Orioles a 2-0 lead, and David Newhan's bunt single off reliever Sam McConnell with two outs in the seventh scored Bigbie.
Mora's homer in the first inning should have produced two runs, but Brian Roberts slid past second base after lining a ball off the scoreboard and was tagged out.
Cabrera pumped his fist all the way to the dugout after the fourth, his shutout still intact despite allowing a leadoff single and walk. Julio Franco flied to center, and Roberts backhanded a grounder by Andruw Jones to begin a double play.
The rookie's heart was pounding in the fifth when Charles Thomas, recalled this week from Triple-A Richmond, lifted a fly ball to the fence in left field. Bigbie made the catch with his back against the padding.
Mike Hessman followed with a grounder up the middle that looked like a single until Roberts made another backhanded stop and threw across his body.
It was clear by now that Cabrera wasn't in this alone. After committing three errors in Thursday night's loss to the Yankees, the Orioles' defense was offering full support.
After a one-out single by Franco in the seventh, Tejada ranged up the middle to field a grounder by Andruw Jones and flipped to Roberts, who caught the ball bare-handed before firing to first for the double play.
"Everything seemed like it gelled tonight," Mazzilli said. "They played the game like you'd expect them to play it."
Opponent: Atlanta Braves
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 4:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Braves' Russ Ortiz (6-6, 4.18) vs. Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (5-3, 4.01)