Bob Milacki returned triumphant yesterday from exile in Double A purgatory. Fresh off the farm team in Hagerstown, Milacki propped up the Orioles with 5 1/3 innings of one-hit relief and gained a 5-4 victory over Milwaukee for his effort.
Afterward, with ice packs wrapped securely around his right shoulder, the 26-year-old pitcher sounded dutifully penitent.
"I'd like to get in the rotation as soon as possible," he said, in answer to a question. "But if not, I'm happy where I am."
Better to be in a big-league bullpen than a minor-league pitching rotation, Milacki was saying. Even if the job is long relief. Even if your team is down 4-1 in a game that is rapidly sliding toward blowout status.
The Orioles demoted Milacki at the end of spring training for the purpose of retooling his mechanics. They gave him a choice -- Triple A Rochester or Double A Hagerstown -- but no promises.
Three starts and three wins later, he was still in limbo. Then Glenn Davis' pain in the neck put the first baseman on the disabled list. That opened the door for Milacki.
When the Orioles asked him last Friday if he could pitch out of the bullpen, Milacki didn't need to ask for directions.
"When you pitch well, you do get a little antsy [waiting for a recall]," he said yesterday.
Milacki pitched well at Hagerstown. In 17 innings, he struck out 18. In three games, he compiled a 1.06 earned run average. Even though he won 14 games for the Orioles and led the American League with 36 starts in 1989, these were anxious times in Double A ball.
"Mentally, it was a tough time, I admit it," he said. "But [Suns manager] Jerry Narron was there. He caught me in Rochester [in 1988]. He talked to me about things. We talked about the way I pitched in '88, what I had to do.
"There is always pressure to do well down there. I'm a big-league pitcher. I'm supposed to do well . . . It scares you. My first start down there, I didn't know what to expect."
He wasn't sure what to expect yesterday, either, when manager Frank Robinson summoned him in the third inning. The Brewers had just tattooed Ben McDonald for five straight hits and a 4-1 lead. There were two outs, with runners on first and second and B.J. Surhoff at the plate.
Milacki started him off with a sinker, low and away, and Surhoff plunked it off the end of his bat, a single to leftfield. "I got a lump in my throat," Milacki remembered.
The lump disappeared moments later when Brady Anderson's throw and catcher Ernie Whitt's block of home plate rubbed out Darryl Hamilton trying to score from second.
"Then I fell into a groove," Milacki said.
It was quite a groove. After a two-walk fifth inning, Milacki retired the last 10 batters he faced. In the ninth he gave way to Gregg Olson.
Thanks to Milacki, the Orioles were able to win a game they had virtually lost. Thanks to Milacki, they avoided an ignominious series sweep against Milwaukee at home. Everybody in orange and black went home happy yesterday.
"It wasn't that I had doubts about him," Robinson said of the spring decision to send Milacki down. "I was looking at performance. Today he was over the plate. He did the things he did in the past when he had success. There's no doubt in my mind he'll win here if he throws strikes."