TUCSON, Ariz. — Darren Oliver was totally buggin’.
A swarm of African killer bees descended upon Tucson Electric Park on Thursday with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning of the Colorado Rockies’ spring training game with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The bees eventually found Oliver on the mound as he attempted to pitch to Arizona’s Troy Glaus with two outs.
Oliver fled the scene and returned, only to be attacked again. The bees followed Oliver as he scurried off the mound toward third base, swatting the insects with his mitt the whole time. Then Oliver sought solace in Colorado’s dugout, where team trainers sprayed him down in a futile attempt to rid himself of whatever honey he possessed.
He returned to the mound, and the bees did, too. Oliver tried four times within 20 minutes to resume pitching. Each time he would throw a warm-up and then swipe madly at the bees, looking like something out of a cartoon. He never threw another official pitch.
Colorado manager Clint Hurdle pulled Oliver and inserted reliever Allan Simpson, who struck out Glaus to end the inning. When the Diamondbacks took the field in the top of the sixth, the bees set their sights on them. The umpires conferred with Hurdle and Arizona manager Bob Melvin and called the game with Arizona up, 3-1.
Hurdle said none of the Rockies were stung. But the bees lingered around the park until late in the afternoon, when city workers sprayed and killed them. Oliver said they might have been drawn to coconut oil included in his hair gel. The whole affair had the 8,029 fans buzzing, and it triggered quotations baseball players rarely utter.
“There were just swarms of bees in different pockets of the field,” Hurdle said. “You know, swarms. There wasn’t just a few. There was a large number of bees in swarms in different pockets on the field, and they just seemed to be aimlessly moving around.”
Said Oliver: “It was funny in the beginning, but after a while ... I like this game, but I like myself a little bit more.”
Aside from the obvious story regarding the swarm, another one unfolded Thursday that involves the Rockies’ starting rotation. Oliver’s line included 42/3 innings and three earned runs. Arizona scored all three in the first, highlighted by a two-run home run by Luis Gonzalez. Oliver breezed through the second, third and fourth.
Hurdle announced after the game that Jeff Francis will be Colorado’s No. 3 starter, behind Joe Kennedy and Jason Jennings. On Saturday, Shawn Chacon will make his first start since March 6, when he strained his right groin. Chacon figures to be a part of the rotation in 2005, where he was an all-star in 2003, after last season’s experiment as a closer.
And then there’s Oliver and Jamie Wright.
One figures to be in the rotation come April 4. Hurdle said Wright looked good Wednesday in a six-inning start against Arizona’s AAA team, allowing two runs and four hits in six innings. Oliver said landing in the bullpen on opening day won’t sting at all.
“I don’t even look at it as a battle,” Oliver said. “I look at it as me going out there and pitching and getting ready for the season. I don’t control that kind of stuff. ... Why put that kind of pressure on yourself?”
Hurdle declined to say when he would set the rotation but said he would not wait until the end of camp to do so. Hurdle also said he will try to talk with Oliver today to discuss “pitching and roles and things like that.” The only thing Hurdle made clear — other than his reluctance to field more than two or three questions about the bees — was that he’s not taking this decision lightly.
“Everybody just talks about just throwing one of those guys into the bullpen, and it’s a very flipped statement without much substance,” Hurdle said. “It’s a lot more serious matter than that.
“Darren has some experience doing it. I’m just not so sure ... how comfortable he says he’ll be.”
Of Wright’s 192 major league appearances, 189 have come as a starter. Oliver has started in 228 of his 306 appearances. Wright has a 6.92 spring ERA in 13 innings, while Oliver entered Thursday at 1.13 in eight innings.
“I’m not sold on either one yet,” Hurdle said. “I need better direction. We’ll talk to the principals involved.”