Olson saves lessons, too Young Orioles ace still is learning from fateful inning in SkyDome

February 25, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Almost 16 months after The Pitch, Gregg Olson still remembers almost all of the minute details.

Almost.

Of his 138 major-league appearances, the one that remains sharpest in Olson's mind took place Oct. 1, 1989, in Toronto. That's the night, just before he struck out Kelly Gruber to end the eighth inning, that Olson bounced a wild pitch, enabling Tom Lawless to score the tying run in a game the Orioles eventually lost, 2-1 in 11 innings.

That loss ended the Orioles' miracle season, because Olson was unavailable to protect a 4-1 lead in the seventh inning the next day and the Blue Jays clinched the division championship. But it wasn't The Pitch that provided Olson, then a rookie, with his most significant learning experience in that game.

"I just had to put that out of my mind," he said after the Orioles' third day of spring training here yesterday. "I still had to keep us alive for a chance to win. That's what I had to think about."

It was a pitch to George Bell, one batter before Gruber, that helped Olson understand how good hitters adjust -- and how even the most overpowering pitchers sometimes have to do the same. "In 1988 [when he came up as a rookie late in the year], I struck Bell out with a curveball," he said. "The next year he guarded against the curveball and put it in play.

"Last year I realized that when I was ahead of him on the count -- 0-and-2, 1-and-2 -- I had to make him expand his strike zone by throwing him high fastballs."

It was part of the learning process Olson said he went through his entire second year. "You throw hitters the same thing you had success with the year before, to see if they adjust," he said.

Because he had only one month in the big leagues in 1988, it wasn't a priority in 1989 -- when Bell already had made an adjustment. Had Olson been a year ahead in his development, there was another pitch in that Oct. 1, 1989, game he might have made differently.

It was a curveball that Bell bounced routinely, on a 1-and-2 count, to shortstop Cal Ripken for the second out while Olson was trying to protect a 1-0 lead for Jeff Ballard. On that play pinch-runner Lawless moved to third base, and later scored the tying run.

Until yesterday, Olson still couldn't believe why Lawless went to third on the play. "I don't understand how he could take that gamble on a ball hit to shortstop," said Olson.

There was a momentary pause in the conversation, because a key element was missing.

"Gregg, he was running on the pitch, trying to steal third base," Olson was told.

The blank look told the story.

"No," said Olson, his eyes staring in disbelief.

Assured that this was not a forgetful mind at work, Olson shook his head. "I swear I didn't know that until right now," he said with a rueful smile on his face.

"I always thought maybe the game situation might have dictated it. That maybe if Bell would've been the first out instead of the second, that Cal would have thrown him out, rather than just making the routine play at first."

It wasn't that Olson couldn't believe Lawless would run -- just that he never knew what had happened because he was so focused on the hitter, Bell, and the importance of getting him out. Holding runners on base is the weakest part of Olson's game, which he and the Orioles' staff understand. It is something he is constantly reminded of, but not to the point of losing his main focus.

Getting hitters out is his primary consideration, so much so that there is a fear his effectiveness might be reduced if baserunners become a primary concern.

Looking back on the play now, it's easy to suggest it probably would not have happened. But in 1989, with a 1-and-2 count, Bell and Lawless didn't need a rocket scientist to predict Olson would throw a curveball.

Lawless later admitted it was the only reason he was running on the play -- thinking if the pitch was a ball, he'd be in position to attempt to score on anything Bell could put into play.

But if there's one thing that makes Olson among the best at his trade after only two years -- besides his nasty curveball and overpowering fastball -- it is his perfect relief pitcher's mentality. Pitching on the edge requires a short memory and the ability not to focus on anything negative.

The fact that he didn't know until yesterday that Lawless was attempting to steal third base in what has been the biggest game of his life thus far, is proof enough that Olson has read and heard virtually nothing about that game.

He refuses to look back, concentrating only on continued improvement as his career moves into the crucial stage. He went from 27 saves in 1989 to 37 last year. He's been Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in two seasons in the big leagues.

His goal this year? "To improve," he said.

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