Robert Smith finds himself in an enviable yet awkward position. He recently scored a surprise promotion from mid-level Class A Peoria to high-level Class A Potomac, which gives him a prime opportunity to boost a battered pitching staff.

On the other hand, the left-handed starter is a teenager in a clubhouse full of players anywhere from two to six years older than he. Smith was in a similar situation in Peoria, only now there is a whole new set of guys for him to try to win over, many of whom lag behind him in progression through the farm system.

"If they see me pitch, maybe they can say, `Okay, he does belong here, maybe,' rather than thinking, `Oh, he's just 19, he shouldn't be here,'" said Smith, who gave up five runs in five innings in his Potomac debut Wednesday at Wilmington.

"I'm kind of getting used to trying to fit in with [older players]. It makes me act more mature and helps me learn faster."

The Cannons need a quick study, particularly one with endurance. If not, pitching coach Mark Grater is going to have to buy a new green marker. That's what he uses to record his hurlers' appearances on an oversized chart in his office.

All the green, including five relievers in one recent game, is making Grater see red, which, by the way, was the color he used for his chart the first month of the season.

"I could wear a path out to the mound this year. I really could," said Grater, whose staff has thrown one shutout in 55 games.

Depleted Troops

Tristan Jerue and Britt Reames, in the rotation at the beginning of the season, have made just three starts each because of elbow injuries. Now starter Otoniel Lanfranco has joined them on the disabled list with the same problem, opening a spot for Smith -- and further taxing the healthy pitchers.

"What can you do?" Grater said of his beleaguered staff. "You can't quit on 'em. I have to get paid for the whole year."

Lanfranco, who left after one inning in his last appearance, May 28 at Kinston, is 4-2 with a 3.79 earned run average. His four victories lead the Cannons.

Smith, who grew up in California five minutes from Potomac reliever Jason Marr, was 4-1 with a 2.83 ERA in nine starts at Peoria. He had 59 strikeouts, tied for fourth in the Midwest League. He walked 16.

If nothing else, the 1998 fourth-round pick gives the Cannons a second left-hander for their 15-man staff. Smith earned the promotion over fellow Peoria left-handers Scott Prather and Les Walrond, both 22.

"For a youngster, [Smith's] very poised on the mound," Grater said. "He had the bases loaded and a guy hit a ground ball to him where he could have just thrown it away at home. He just gathered it up, knew he didn't have a shot at home and got an out. You can't teach that. Either you have it or you don't when it comes to a pressure situation."

Smith's job these days is to mow down batters in the Carolina League, but he has some re-tiring of a different sort to do back in Peoria: While he's been away, someone broke into his Honda Accord, jacked it up on cinder blocks and swiped the tires and rims.

CAPTION: Otoniel Lanfranco, another casualty on the Cannons' struggling pitching staff, was placed on the disabled list because of an elbow injury. He led the Cannons in wins with four.