Control issues

The Baltimore Sun

We're still waiting, but what choice do we really have?

Daniel Cabrera made his first regular season start of 2008 and wasted little time reminding everyone why he is known as one of the most enigmatic players in the major leagues.

Of course, when I say everyone, I'm talking about the all-time-tiny Camden Yards crowd of 10,505 fans who braved the 55-degree chill to see the Orioles bounce back from their disheartening Opening Day loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.

They were also hoping to see a new and improved Daniel Cabrera but had to settle for a slightly more determined version of the erratic guy who has been bedeviling the organization for the past four years.

There were a handful of moments when he displayed the stuff and the focus that could - if harnessed consistently - turn him into a premier major league starting pitcher, but at the moments that really mattered he either lost the strike zone or found the fat part of the wrong bats.

In short, it was his 117th career start, but it was the same old song and dance. He walked five batters (one intentionally) in four-plus innings and gave up long center field home runs to Cliff Floyd and Carlos Pena. When manager Dave Trembley took the ball away from him in the fifth inning, Cabrera had thrown 94 pitches and guaranteed a late night for all.

Sure, this was only his first start of the season, and he has never had much success in April, but the lack of appreciable progress after all that was said and done this spring is hard to overlook.

We're past the point where a lot of fans have given up on the likelihood that Cabrera might suddenly bloom into a right-handed version of Randy Johnson, but I'll repeat my original premise:

What choice do the Orioles really have but to keep trotting him out there and hoping that he has some kind of pitching epiphany over the next few months?

What choice do Orioles fans have but to accept his 200 innings this year in any form they might take?

What choice, indeed.

This is one of those situations in which patience has become the only alternative. The coaching staff just spent four weeks agonizing over the fifth starter, so it's a little early to be talking about a Plan B for the No. 2 hole in the rotation.

Melvin Mora pondered the Cabrera conundrum before last night's game and suggested that everybody chill out.

"It's important for the fans to support him," Mora said. "When you're good, you don't need people. You need them when it's not going well. I just hope he gets a good reception from the fans. The kid's got a good arm. We can't afford to lose another good arm."

His teammates - especially the ones who have seen him from the batter's box - still see the tremendous potential.

"I was scared to death of him," said former Ray Aubrey Huff. "He was all over the place when he first came up. It wasn't a comfortable at-bat. But he's got amazing stuff. It's just a matter of the switch flipping on. He can go out there and throw a no-hitter any time. That's the kind of stuff he has."

Kevin Millar agrees.

"I thought he was one of the most uncomfortable at-bats in the big leagues ... 6-9, 100 miles per hour, not a whole lot of command," Millar said. "That's not cozy. We've seen the potential for a few years. Now, you're hoping he turns the corner for you. He has to."

Until last night, the Rays were the cure for whatever ailed Cabrera. He came into the game with a 6-0 lifetime record against them - which didn't change, thanks to Huff's offense - but gave up six earned runs on six hits before giving way to rookie reliever Randor Bierd in the fifth.

The Rays seemed to have him figured out, but manager Joe Maddon doesn't think the Orioles should lose faith that Cabrera will emerge as a top-flight starting pitcher.

"You've got to be patient with him," Maddon said. "He's got fantastic stuff. When he's on, he can light it up. I understand their frustration, but if he hits it, he's going to be very good. The pot at the end of the rainbow could be very lucrative if you can hang in long enough to get it."

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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