Orioles spell relief 6 different ways Dirty Half-Dozen clean up for starters

June 11, 1991|By Kent Baker

They are young and old, recycled and reborn, a group that -- with the exception of one game -- has been exceptional.

Dubbed "The Dirty Half-Dozen" by Kevin Hickey, their name suggests a swagger, a presence, an attitude that says no situation can intimidate them.

But the Baltimore Orioles' new six-man bullpen is more a creation of manager John Oates than a band of roughnecks overrunning everything.

From closer Gregg Olson to submariner Todd Frohwirth, whose promotion from the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings completed the group, their roles are well-defined.

They have faltered only once -- when Frohwirth and Paul Kilgus allowed six runs to the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday night -- and, unless injuries intrude, they will remain intact.

Oates has eschewed an extra player on the bench in favor of the 11th pitcher, because "my goal is to have nine guys play every day, the type of players you don't have to pinch-hit for, pinch-run for or play defense for. I'd much rather have the move out of the bullpen than off the bench.

"I play to keep the other team from scoring. If they don't score, we can't lose," he said.

That approach has made the Orioles more competitive in the past two weeks, and The Dirty Half-Dozen -- named after the movie "The Dirty Dozen," in which a collection of ne'er-do-wells took on a suicidal war mission -- have played a lead.

Oates is a believer in matchups, so he now has the relievers -- three left-handed, three right-handed -- to apply to any jam and still leave him armed for the late innings.

Too many times the Orioles were "four, five, six runs down. It's tough to overcome that in any inning, much less an early one," Oates said. "But the last 16 days, our pitchers have done the job."

Having five relievers "limits him a lot of times in games decided in the fifth or sixth inning," said right-hander Mark Williamson. "If there's something going on then, he can use a lefty and a righty and still not have to use Gregg [Olson] for two innings."

Case in point: At Boston 10 days ago, Oates brought in Hickey to face Wade Boggs. Then Frohwirth vs. Tom Brunansky. Then Mike Flanagan against Mike Greenwell. Three hitters, three pitchers.

"Now you don't have to fire the last bullet quickly," said pitching coach Al Jackson. "You have one saved."

Of the six, only Olson, one of the game's premier closers, still has the same duties. Even Williamson, his setup man, is entering earlier and throwing longer.

Hickey faces tough left-handers in middle innings. Kilgus is Williamson's counterpart against predominantly left-handed-hitting teams. Flanagan gets the tough lefties late, and his ability to retire all kinds of hitters means Oates does not need to match up as frequently with him on the mound.

The six-man bullpen is not unique. Years ago, when the pecking order was so defined that the best pitchers started, it was common for a well functioning four-man rotation to pitch in the neighborhood of 1,000 innings a season.

"Nobody thought anything of six in the bullpen," said Jackson. "Sometimes, a team would get 50 complete games. Those days are gone. But with our six, we can match up with any team in the league. You can shoot your hand in one inning, if it takes four pitchers to do it."

In this age of specialization, when pitchers are groomed as closers and middle relievers in the minors, there is no stigma attached to the bullpen, where a team often has its top arms and sometimes its top salaries.

Oates surveyed the situation when he took over and decided this was the correct path because the starters were struggling.

He has patterned the bullpen group after the under-publicized Oakland Athletics bullpen, where, on a team loaded with offensive stars, the least-known players are among the most valuable.

The three-time defending league champions started this season with 12 pitchers, principally because two of their most important pitchers, Rick Honeycutt and Gene Nelson, were ailing.

"Tony [La Russa] didn't wait until the eighth or ninth in those years," said Oates. "He killed you in the fifth or sixth by never letting a starter completely lose a game.

"You'd look back, and Honeycutt getting your big left-handed hitter out in the fifth with the bases loaded was the biggest move of the game."

Another important facet of the change in the Orioles is Oates' policy of preparing a reliever well before his entrance, telling him what hitter he is likely to face first.

That saves wear on tear on arms, since the pitcher doesn't have to get ready in a hurry.

"It's nice to know that, particularly if you're a little sore," said Williamson. "You have an idea who you're going to get. It eliminates the doubt, and everybody feels a little more confident."

"You have time to gauge what you're going to do," said Jackson. "You don't have to rush into anything."

Oates said he will be happy if the bullpen can again go "30-some" innings and yield only one run. "I knew they couldn't keep up what they were doing," he said. "Every bullpen gives it up once in a while."

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