- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. He was 24 years old at the time, in only his second full season in the major leagues, so forgive Pat Hentgen for assuming every season of his career would be as magic as the one he had just completed.

Hentgen had just gone 19-9 with a 3.87 ERA to help lead the Toronto Blue Jays to the 1993 World Series championship, the team's second straight.

"I remember after the '93 World Series, I thought, 'Geez, we're going to win it every year,' " he said. "That's what it's all about. That is purely the only reason a lot of guys play, just to get that feeling. And then we were below .500 for four straight years."

Eight years later, Hentgen is a 32-year-old veteran with the Baltimore Orioles, his third club in as many seasons. Though hardly considered one of the game's premier pitchers like Mike Mussina, whom he replaces in Baltimore, Hentgen has amassed an impressive if unspectacular career.

There's the 1996 Cy Young Award, which he won after going 20-10 with a 3.22 ERA over 265* innings. There's the 120-88 career record. And perhaps most importantly, there's a history of reliability that is hard to find in pitchers these days.

Hentgen has won 10 or more games eight straight years, and the only time he did not start at least 29 games over that span came during the strike-shortened 1994 season. He may not be Mussina, but as far as the Orioles are concerned, he's the right man for the job.

"Pat is obviously a former Cy Young Award winner and a tremendous competitor. And he goes about his business the right way," manager Mike Hargrove said. "All those intangibles coupled with his talent give him a chance to be good."

Hentgen has been a good pitcher his entire career. He just doesn't seem to get respect for it. After going 15-12 for the St. Louis Cardinals last year, he signed a two-year, $9.6 million contract with the Orioles. That's pocket change compared with the reported six-year, $88.5 million deal Mussina got from the Yankees, although Hentgen has only three fewer wins than Mussina over the last five years and is the only one of the two who owns a 20-win season and a Cy Young Award.

That's OK with the unassuming Hentgen, who is Baltimore's likely Opening Day starter but doesn't like to think of himself as the No. 1 guy on a staff.

"I've always thought once the season starts, there's five guys working as a unit and five guys working in the bullpen as a unit," he said. "And we all work together. You take the ball every fifth day, you try to give your team a chance to win and good things will happen."

Though Hentgen is the front-runner to take the mound at Camden Yards on April 2 against Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox, Hargrove has yet to anoint anyone as the ace. He groups Hentgen, Jose Mercedes and Sidney Ponson as the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 starters, not necessarily in that order.

"[Hentgen] lessens the loss [of Mussina]," Hargrove said. "But you never replace a guy like Mike Mussina. You don't replace that talent with one person."

Hentgen, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound right-hander, chose Baltimore after hearing good things from former Orioles reliever Mike Timlin, who finished last season with him in St. Louis, and B.J. Surhoff, who was in tears after being traded to Atlanta last July.

"I think it's a class organization," Hentgen said. "And I like the American League. I grew up in this league."

He is particularly excited about the opportunity to be the leader of a relatively young pitching staff and is anxious to build rapports with teammates like Jose Mercedes and Ponson, much as veterans Dave Stieb and Jack Morris did for Hentgen when he was starting his career.

"I think you have to have that mix," Hentgen said. "The young guys keep you hungry, and the veterans can keep the young guys in place."

If he can win 15 games, pitch 200 innings and become the leader of a staff desperately in need of one, Hentgen will have done his job in Baltimore.

And maybe some day, the respect will come whether Hentgen wins another World Series or not.

"The bottom line is, when you leave the game, you want to be respected as a guy that went about his business as a professional," he said. "If you do that, people admire you."

Notes Right-hander Scott Erickson made his return to the field during the Orioles' first full workout. Erickson is recovering from Tommy John surgery on his elbow last summer that is expected to keep him out until at least August. Erickson, who appeared in 16 games last season, participated in various fielding drills but has yet to throw a ball out of a pitching motion.

"He's upbeat, as I expect Scotty to be," Hargrove said. "We're going to have to tie him down with a rope to keep him on schedule. Slow is better right now for him." …

The Orioles signed right-hander Calvin Maduro to a minor league contract and invited him to their major league camp. Maduro appeared in 15 games for Baltimore last year, going 0-0 with a 9.64 ERA before his season ended June 22 because of a sprained ulna collateral ligament.

The Orioles also signed four players on their 40-man roster: pitchers Sean Douglass, Mark Nussbeck and Josh Towers and first baseman Jay Gibbons… .

Right-hander Luis Rivera, acquired last July from Atlanta in the B.J. Surhoff deal, was the only pitcher or catcher not to report on time. Hargrove said Rivera is recovering from food poisoning and was due to fly out of San Diego yesterday… . Reliever Alan Mills won't join the team until the weekend after his wife, Shareese, gave birth to the couple's second child, daughter Alana, Wednesday night in Lakeland, Fla.

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