Adam Loewen

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals had scored three runs and Adam Loewen's pitch count had swelled past 30 when Jim Johnson started to get loose in the Orioles' bullpen.

It was a sight nobody associated with the Orioles wanted to see yesterday, particularly not in the first inning. Loewen got out of the inning but couldn't remain in the game much longer, done in not by elbow and shoulder pain but by an inability to throw strikes.

In his first start since his turn was skipped in the rotation because of shoulder tendinitis, Loewen allowed four runs on four hits -- including a long, two-run homer by Albert Pujols -- four walks and two hit batters in just 1 2/3 innings of the Orioles' 12-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Loewen needed 63 pitches (35 strikes) to get only five outs, leaving the game with the bases loaded and more questions about his reliability for the 2008 Orioles.

"He doesn't look hurt; he just looks lost," catcher Ramon Hernandez said. "His velocity is there, he's got everything there. Maybe he just needs to have a good game to feel good. It's like he knows what to do, he just can't do it right now."

Less than two weeks before Opening Day, Orioles officials maintain -- at least publicly -- that they are not concerned about the 23-year-old left-hander and that they are happy he is pain-free after elbow surgery last June and after experiencing shoulder stiffness last week.

But the ominous signs are building. Loewen's spring ERA stands at 12.27. He has made four spring starts and hasn't pitched three complete innings in any of them. In 7 1/3 innings, Loewen has allowed 12 hits and issued 12 walks while striking out seven.

"I'm happy he's feeling good," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "I think he's a lot closer than he thinks. While I'm watching the game, it sure looks like he is ready to get out of the inning and then it gets away from him. And then things snowballed on him today. ... He's got to work through it. I think it's close ... even though the results don't say it's close."

The trouble started yesterday when Loewen issued a one-out walk in the first inning to Brian Barton after being ahead in the count 1-2. Pujols then smoked a 1-0 pitch over the wall in left-center field. Loewen allowed the next three batters to reach, two on walks.

"I think he's sitting up there on the mound saying, 'Try to throw a strike, try to throw a strike,' " Hernandez said. "You can't do that. You're pushing yourself too hard."

Loewen eventually got out of the first inning but needed 38 pitches to do it. In the second inning, he had two strikes on Pujols and Troy Glaus and hit them both in consecutive at-bats. Rich Ankiel followed with an RBI single to right field.

"I felt fine. I didn't feel any pain, soreness, stiffness, loosened up quickly," Loewen said. "[But] I felt like I hadn't pitched in forever. I was really rusty, especially on two-strike counts. I couldn't put anybody away, and I let them right back in the count. I ended up hitting a couple of guys. It wasn't a good day."

The frustration in Loewen's voice was obvious. However, he said there is plenty of time before Opening Day to log more innings and make adjustments. He'll likely get two more Grapefruit League starts, but that could change depending on where he's slotted in the Opening Day rotation. Manager Dave Trembley said he'd like Loewen's pitch count to reach 90 before the club heads north.

"I better come to pitch the next time out so I can get my innings and be ready," Loewen said. "I don't think there's anything wrong mechanically. It's focus, it's rust, it's a lot of different things. I'm thinking the more I go out there, the better I'm going to get. I still feel that way. I've just got to start doing it now.'

The Orioles are already looking for a fifth starter because the two main internal candidates -- Matt Albers and Brian Burres -- are doing little to seize the job. If Loewen continues to struggle, that puts the Orioles in a bad situation close to the start of the season.

"If he gets into his rhythm and starts to get a little bit in a flow, it will come back," Kranitz said. "I'll go to war with him anytime. He's a tough kid, a tough guy. Whether he does well or not, he's going to compete on every pitch. Those kinds of guys, you'll take any day. So I'm very optimistic."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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