- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2001

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Those expecting the Baltimore Orioles to make an announcement regarding their No. 5 starting pitcher anytime soon had better prepare to endure at least another week of intrigue.

Either career reliever Chuck McElroy or surprising minor league free agent Willis Roberts will get the call from manager Mike Hargrove for the Orioles' April 8 game at Cleveland. The decision, however, may not come until the final days of spring training, if then.

Both helped their causes yesterday, offering five impressive innings apiece in Baltimore's split-squad exhibition games.

McElroy, pitching in Fort Lauderdale against the St. Louis Cardinals, gave up one run on four hits in the Orioles' 4-2 victory. Roberts, pitching in Fort Myers against the Twins, allowed four hits, no runs and struck out four in a 6-5 loss.

"They're going to make our decision tough," Hargrove said.

McElroy, 33, entered camp knowing he would be given every opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation after making two spot starts last September following 603 relief appearances, the most ever by a major leaguer before starting a game. He remained out of the spotlight through much of the first month of camp, though, making just three exhibition appearances and only one start, a three-inning performance March 9 against Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, a host of rivals was whittled down to Roberts, a 25-year-old right-hander who was signed as a six-year minor league free agent this winter and has just 1 1/3 innings of big league experience. He impressed Baltimore with a three-inning, one-hit showing last week against St. Louis and backed it up with his showing yesterday.

Conventional wisdom pointed to Roberts perhaps taking control of the race, but McElroy pushed himself back into contention yesterday. The team needed to see that he could throw five full innings, something he hadn't yet done this spring.

Asked how far he'd like to be pitching in spring training games, McElroy replied, "As far as I can. That way, I'll know and they'll know. The farther into games I've gone, the better I've felt."

McElroy's shining moment came in the top of the first, when Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire struck out looking on a nasty forkball at the knees.

"It's good to face a batter like that in the spring because you get pumped up," McElroy said. "I was just thinking, please don't hit a punt [home run] off me."

McElroy did show signs of tiring in the fifth, allowing a run on two singles and a walk. He buckled down to finish the inning, though, getting J.D. Drew to line out.

Hargrove is paying close attention this spring to McElroy's durability.

"I think it has been an issue, and I think it will continue to be an issue," Hargrove said. "But I have not seen any reason or been given any reason to believe it will not work."

Note Cal Ripken, who took batting practice for the third straight day, will accompany the Orioles on the road for the first time today when Baltimore faces St. Louis in Jupiter. But the 40-year-old third baseman, who has been out with a fractured rib since the start of camp, will not play.

Hargrove hinted that Ripken would likely make his spring debut tomorrow against the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers. If Ripken does begin playing this weekend, he should be able to get 25 to 30 at-bats before the start of the season April 2.

"I think we're at the point now where we just want to be sure that he's really ready," Hargrove said. "There's no reason for me to think that he's not getting close."

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