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Schmuck: Don't yet fret over Orioles' ugly start to spring training

It's not nearly as bad as it must look from 1,000 miles away.

The Orioles took the field at Ed Smith Stadium on Saturday night without a win in their first five Grapefruit League games. Two of their core starting pitchers got scorched in their first exhibition appearances. Chris Tillman had to be scratched from his first start with a hip flexor strain and two other significant players are likely to miss significant time because of injuries.

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Coming on the heels of the Dexter Fowler fiasco a little more than a week ago, it has to appear in Baltimore that the Orioles are in serious disarray.

In this case, however, that appearance is deceiving. The Fowler foul-up notwithstanding, the case can be made that the Orioles are hitting this bump on baseball's Florida Turnpike at just the right time. And if you look closely at their entire exhibition schedule, you might be tempted to think this is all part of Buck Showalter's evil plan for American League East domination.

OK, that's a stretch, but this year's spring schedule — unlike last year's — is right up the Orioles' alley.

They might have some of the worst team stats in either league right now. But there's really nothing to be concluded from that because they played all but one of their first five games with unrepresentative travel lineups that bore no resemblance to the power-packed batting order they hope will open the regular season.

That includes Saturday's split-squad game in Fort Myers in the afternoon before the main squad took the field in Sarasota for the first night game of the spring.

This wouldn't be of particular significance if the schedule quickly evened out the rest of the way, but the Orioles get a big payback at the end. They are scheduled to play six of their last eight Grapefruit League games at home and four of their last six exhibitions at game times that simulate the start of the regular season.

"We're sucking it up right now, but the last week is really important the way we've got it set up with home games and night games," Showalter said Saturday. "If we get through tomorrow, we've got it kicked it in the butt."

Showalter will be the first to tell you that this is in sharp positive contrast to last spring, when the Orioles had to bus two hours each way to play the Atlanta Braves twice in the last three days of the exhibition schedule before opening the regular season on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The past week hasn't been pretty, but the front-loaded road schedule affords Showalter the opportunity to look at a bunch of players who might only be around for the first few weeks of spring training.

More importantly, it's an opportunity for them.

"The people that we are playing, I told them before they came in here, 'You better come in here breaking ball and you better come here with your bat speed because your opportunity might be in your first two weeks,'" Showalter said. "You know you're going to be playing. We play the [heck] out of these guys and we get to know a lot of our minor league guys."

Nobody wants to see anyone get hurt, but early injuries in spring open up more innings and at-bats to audition young players and the handful of journeymen who hope to catch a ride on the "Norfolk Shuttle."

The Orioles have to be concerned about the time that reliever Brian Matusz might lose because of a rib cage strain. But Matusz has had more than his share of tough luck in previous springs and he has averaged 62 regular-season appearances the past three years. It appears that Jimmy Paredes will be out for a while with a badly bruised wrist, but he also might return in time to play more during the exhibition season.

Though the ugly spring debuts of Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez cannot be totally discounted, it is fair to note that Jimenez looked similarly awful in his first appearance last spring and was impressive the rest of the way. And Gonzalez doesn't have ti prove he can get hitters out — just that he can stay healthy and pitch enough innings.

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There's always going to be cause for concern, especially with a rotation that already featured so much uncertainty. But it's way too early for alarm.

The rocky overall pitching performance should even out and the Orioles haven't really flexed their muscular lineup, which should be something to see with the wind regularly blowing out at Ed Smith Stadium.

The fun hasn't even started.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article from Fort Myers, Fla.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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