Someone glanced at Baltimore's starting pitcher in the Orioles clubhouse a few hours before Friday night's game against Minnesota and stepped back in amazement. "Did you see him? He looks 12 or 13."
Someone else said, "He looks 18." Meet John Maine, newly reported for on-the-job training like so many other Orioles starting pitchers this season. It's not easy for a major league team to climb in the standings with a revolving door of pitchers best known for their short resumes. But you could at least say this for Maine, who went to the hill at Camden Yards never having faced a major league batter: He's 23, still young enough that his career, if it goes well for him, is all future.
He'd still have been in uniform at Class AAA Ottawa Friday night under more normal circumstances -- if the Orioles had a strong-armed starting corps with more experience. As it was, the Fredericksburg, Va., native, with 30 to 40 relatives and friends in the crowd, gamely answered the S.O.S. and tried to keep his nervousness in check.
In two-plus seasons, the right-hander has progressed ably through the Orioles' farm system before leveling off to a 4-5 record at Ottawa. And Friday night he could still have been there, building on some improving performances, had the Orioles not been desperate. The Orioles have been desperate for starting pitching all season. How they went into the season with such an inexperienced group of starters remains a mystery, especially since they're the only team with two general managers who both happened to be pitchers.
Three-fifths of the season-opening rotation is gone with injuries. Among the positives, Erik Bedard has made it this far with a 4-4 record and the third-most innings pitched on the staff. More surprisingly, Daniel Cabrera answered the call from Class AA Bowie and won eight games for the Orioles in short order. But there is not necessarily a Daniel Cabrera on the end of every line.
The latest emergency call before the one to Maine was to David Borkowski, who spent eight-plus seasons in the Detroit organization, almost all of it in the minors, before landing at Bowie and now here. His efforts have been gritty, you might say, but his record is 1-2 in three starts. This is a staff that cost Mark Wiley his job as pitching coach, a staff built on prayer and without enough wings.
With Maine, Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli hoped to steal a win from the Twins. "He has to pitch the way he has been, not try to do more because he's in the big leagues," Mazzilli said in the dugout before the game.
A 6-3 road trip after the all-star break seemed to leave the manager hopeful. After all, it was on that trip that David Newhan, a found talent if ever there was one (at least for the time being), hit an inside-the-park home run off Pedro Martinez. The "book" on Newhan says he doesn't hit the curveball.
Apparently, it doesn't say he can't hit a Martinez curveball.
So if anything is possible in the church of baseball, maybe Maine would come out throwing like Dave McNally once did. It's probably not fair to mention it, but McNally made his Orioles debut with a complete-game, two-hit shutout against the Kansas City A's in 1962. He was all of 19 at the time.
(Youthful pitchers are not to be underestimated. Jim Palmer was 19 when he came up. Milt Pappas was 18. So was Wally Bunker. You can't say that inexperience held back any of those former Orioles.)
A few of these young Oriole starters could mature overnight (or maybe over the winter), and Maine might even be a part of a bright new Orioles staff. As of a rainy Friday night in late July, there was even plenty of time left in this season for some surprises. But for now, suffice it to say that Maine, a 6-foot-4 hard-thrower, remains an anticipated part of the Orioles future. It's just that his debut was not one to remember.
He was hit hard for four runs and seven hits and lasted only 32/3 innings. As Mazzilli also had said, "From Triple A to the big leagues is a big step." Maine aged a bit.
"It was just me not pitching up to my capabilities," Maine said after the Orioles had lost, 7-3. "This was a disappointment to me."
But he enjoyed the experience of wearing a big league uniform. After he had thrown 67 pitches, Mazzilli came to get him and said some encouraging things. "I think he got a good taste of what it's like and this will be a good learning process for him," Mazzilli said.
On the mound, he told Maine to look around, so that he would remember where he was and where they both hoped he would be again soon -- because, for now, he was heading back to Ottawa.
"I wanted to see him smile a little bit," Mazzilli said.
Maine received a standing ovation as he walked with bowed head toward the dugout in the rain. Many in the crowd of 34,874 managed to applaud while holding their umbrellas. They seemed to be wishing the best for him.