Quick change artist Oates redresses 'pen

Ken Rosenthal

June 04, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

When John Oates turned on the TV in his Minneapolis hotel room Sunday night, the first thing he saw was Tony La Russa making a pitching change. The irony was not lost on Oates, who had just spent an entire weekend in Boston doing his best impersonation of the Oakland manager.

Everyone chuckled when Oates talked of modeling the Orioles' bullpen after the A's, but in less than two weeks, that's exactly what he has done. Twice at Fenway he won using five pitchers -- a juggling act Frank Robinson failed to perform in the first 37 games.

Last night's 3-2 loss at Minnesota aside, the Orioles appear rejuvenated under Oates, and his handling of the pitching staff is the big reason. The new manager displays a clear vision even though he lacks dominant starters. His first day on the job, he wisely requested an 11th pitcher.

The front office obliged, and the Orioles' expanded bullpen -- anointed "the dirty half-dozen" by Kevin Hickey -- hasn't allowed a run in 20 2/3 innings. Each reliever has a set role, defined and explained by Oates. The idea is for the starters to depart before getting into serious trouble.

That isn't always possible -- Oates pulled Jeff Robinson after 4 2/3 innings last night, fearing a 3-0 deficit would get out of hand. What's more, an 11-man staff isn't without its price. Oates needed an extra bench player in the ninth inning last night. He was forced to use Chris Hoiles as a pinch-runner, and couldn't hit for Jeff McKnight with the game on the line.

Still, 17 of the 26 major-league clubs are now carrying 11 pitchers, and three (Oakland, Detroit and Milwaukee) are carrying 12. The A's, of course, are largely responsible for this trend, but it's a natural progression with so few starters capable of regularly pitching nine innings.

The 25-man roster gives clubs more flexibility; for the Orioles it's nothing short of a lifesaver. Their starters have completed seven innings only 12 times in 48 games. Other than Mike Flanagan and Gregg Olson, their relievers are most effective in small doses as well.

If anything, the club should have added an 11th pitcher sooner, but Robinson preferred a deeper bench. The funny thing is, Robinson spoke of operating his bullpen like La Russa as far back as 1989. But he was understandably reluctant. The Orioles' answer to Gene Nelson was always Jose Bautista.

The situation is different under Oates. "We've got nothing to lose," he said. "Ten days ago we were just about at rock bottom." Robinson worked under that mindset in '89 and became AL Manager of the Year. Yet it's wrong to assume Oates is acting solely out of desperation.

After observing the A's as a coach under Robinson, he marvels at the way La Russa manipulates his pitching staff. "It's really frustrating," Oates said. "Every time we get something started, he brings someone in to kill it. You're sitting there looking over your shoulder for him."

Oates' relievers aren't nearly as good, but he's managing like La Russa anyway: If the Orioles grab a lead in the first five innings, he treats any critical situation as if the outcome is at stake, pushing button after button trying to get to Olson, his closer.

The strategy worked magnificently at Fenway, where the Orioles had lost 22 of their previous 26 games. "I wanted [Wade] Boggs and [Mike] Greenwell looking at me every time they came up late in the ballgame," Oates said. "I wanted them thinking, 'Ooh, here comes another lefthander.' "

It's doubtful Hickey and Paul Kilgus struck fear in the hearts of Boston's lefthanded sluggers, but the idea is to get more out of less. Jim Leyland does it in Pittsburgh, where he lacks a bona fide closer. Bobby Valentine does it in Texas, where he's changing pitchers at a record-breaking pace.

Those two managers are contending for division titles. So is La Russa, whose system continues to prevail even though closer Dennis Eckersley got off to a rough start and three other relievers (Nelson, Todd Burns, Rick Honeycutt) have spent considerable time on the disabled list.

Granted, Oates faces an immense challenge.

But he has a plan, and it's a start.

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