FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -Orioles right-hander Danys Baez finally took a step in the direction of the Opening Day starting rotation yesterday, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Fellow rotation candidate Hayden Penn took a small step backward, giving up a game-deciding home run in the Orioles' 2-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.
In both cases, the results would not have mattered a week ago, but the Orioles are moving into the second phase of the spring training evaluation process. Baez needed only to show his arm was healthy in his first Grapefruit League outing and the intrasquad game he started last week. This time, he needed to show he could throw enough strikes to keep the bases clear and keep the team in the game in the early innings. Mission accomplished.
"Baez was a lot better," manager Dave Trembley said. "His velocity was way up. He had more movement on his pitches. That was big for him."
Penn did not lose any serious ground, but it never looks good when you walk the leadoff batter in an inning and give up a monster shot. Carlos Gomez cleared the screen in left field and landed his two-run homer on the next infield to account for all the runs in the game.
"It's a tough thing for him because every outing means a lot," pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. "He's going to get every opportunity, but it does. It means a lot."
Meanwhile, the winnowing process that will eventually narrow the field to five regular-season starting pitchers moved two steps forward with the revelation from Trembley that injured pitchers Brad Hennessey and John Parrish have been eliminated from the competition because they have fallen too far behind the rest of the other starter candidates.
"Hennessey and Parrish are going to be a while," Trembley said, "so there's no sense in talking about them. ... I already felt they had missed so much time that they weren't going to break camp with the team, so there's no sense of urgency."
Clearly, the competition has moved to the next level, even though there are still some pitchers - Rich Hill, Mark Hendrickson and Adam Eaton - who are in the preparatory stages of training camp. Even though a couple of pitchers no longer will need innings over the next couple of weeks, the opportunities to make an impression on the coaching staff still will be at a premium. Baez took advantage of one yesterday.
"Absolutely," Kranitz said. "It [the Baez situation] was still clouded for me. I think there are some guys that - now we're going through the second time through the lineup - the second time through tells you a lot about them. We had to see something. I think that it's time. I don't think you could evaluate him the first two weeks. Here's a guy who has pitched one inning at a time a lot of years in his career. He comes in and throws more innings and pitches than he had in a long time. Now is the time when he's got to show us what he can do. He's getting his legs under him."
Baez has been around long enough to know it was time to show he could command all his pitches and manage the early innings of the game. The Twins didn't exactly send their "A" team across the state to face him, but he handled some pretty good hitters at the heart of the lineup and didn't give up a hit until the final batter he faced in the fourth inning.
"This was a very important outing for me," Baez said. "I went three innings-plus and threw less than 50 pitches. This was big for me because when the season starts, I need to be able to throw 100 to 105 pitches and turn the game over to the bullpen and give us a chance to win. That's what I'm looking for."
The Orioles still are looking for the three pitchers who will follow Jeremy Guthrie and Koji Uehara in the regular-season rotation, and the evaluation process is going to go on for several more weeks, but as they move into the second phase of the process, it should start to become more apparent which of the rotation candidates have a real chance to go north with the team in April.
"I'm feeling a lot better about it," Kranitz said. "I think it's starting to clear up a little bit, but we still have Hill, who needs to go out and toe the slab, and Eaton needs to get out there. We really haven't seen Hendrickson yet, either. The guys have been going out and pounding the strike zone. They're making it difficult [to choose among them], and you want them to make it difficult."