Desperation finally moves Orioles to action


July 31, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

The Orioles didn't simply clean house yesterday. No, no, they fumigated the place. And, in doing so, they made a statement. Actually, it was more like an apology, which might go something like this: We, the Orioles, sincerely apologize for the sorry excuse of a pitching staff we've put together for your viewing entertainment.

Certainly, the Orioles had plenty to say. In sending down Jeff Robinson, they said the Mickey Tettleton trade was a disaster. In sending down Jeff Ballard, they said you can't pitch from memory. In designating Paul Kilgus for reassignment, they said, well, what can you say about Paul Kilgus that hasn't been said already?

There's more. The Orioles indicated they're taking another shot at a youth movement, the one they seemed to have abandoned. And so we'll get to see Mike Mussina, who is thought to be nearly as a good a prospect as Ben McDonald, for what that is worth. The other two minor-leaguers are relief pitchers whose names -- Jim Poole and Stacy Jones -- you may or may not choose to commit immediately to memory. But the Orioles like them both.

So, what does it all mean? Do I have to spell it out for you? It means the Orioles, in a desperate search for answers, are finally convinced that neither Ballard nor Robinson has any. Robinson (16 earned runs in his past 16 innings) has a live arm, but he can't seem to put his fastball over the plate.

Ballard, meantime, clearly has never regained the arm strength lost in two operations. He's a good guy who had a great season for the Orioles in '89 but who is 8-22 in the '90s. Did you catch his act in Seattle Monday? Team president Larry Lucchino did, and it must have looked like a cry for help. So there go two-fifths of the starting rotation, probably never to be heard from again.

The Orioles would like to say more, but they can't. I mean, it isn't if these guys were the only problems. Let me trot out a few numbers for you. The starting pitchers this season have a combined ERA of 5.51. That's right, nearly 5 1/2 runs a game. If the ERA were any higher, they'd have to bring air-traffic controllers to Memorial Stadium. Here are more numbers: Thirty times this year, the Orioles have trailed by at least three runs before the fourth inning. And more: In first innings this season, the score is AL 88, Orioles 37.

Adding Mussina to the mix may not yield immediate results, just as the return of Dave Johnson did not. But the Orioles will take a hard look at this group and see what can be made of it. You can start with McDonald. He's up, he's down, he's back next year and hopes will stay high. Bob Milacki has been fairly decent of late. On the Orioles, decent is cause for celebration. He, too, will be back. Johnson, a 13-game winner last season with Johnson-like stuff, remains on trial. Roy Smith? He's not the kind of guy you ever have in your plans. He's the kind of pitcher who gets on your staff when you don't know where else to turn.

Mussina is a prospect. At Rochester this season, he was 10-4 with a 2.87 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 122 1/3 innings. The concern is that they might be rushing him, but John Oates doesn't think so. Oates has been lobbying for Mussina for a while. Back in spring training, Mussina was given a good look but appeared overmatched. Now the Orioles can look again at a pitcher they believe will be in the rotation next season.

I can easily envision a rotation of fill-in-free-agent, McDonald, Milacki, Mussina and Johnson. They need the free agent to take the heat off McDonald. They need McDonald to take the heat off Mussina. They need Milacki to be steady and Johnson just for his guts.

With a decent rotation, the Orioles could have a good staff. I hope when the trading deadline passes tonight that Mike Flanagan is still an Oriole. I hope Mark Williamson is, too. In baseball today, starters need to get you to the seventh and the bullpen takes over. The Orioles have the bullpen elements in place, including Gregg Olson, who in an off-year is still among the game's best.

It's easy now to say the Orioles might have had the starters in place, too. We saw all those ex-Orioles on the National League All-Star team -- Pete Harnisch, Mike Morgan, Dennis Martinez. And you can throw in Mike Boddicker. Were there some mistakes? Yes. But Morgan is still no great winner. Did anyone mourn his passing? The trade that sent Harnisch et al. to Houston for Glenn Davis was still the right deal to make, no matter how it has worked out. Boddicker was getting out of town, anyway, leaving Dennis Martinez, whose comeback story is, of course, quite familiar to all. The Orioles' story isn't of four good pitchers who got away but rather of the staff they haven't been able to develop.

They said in fairly dramatic terms yesterday that they're having to start over. And now, as the Orioles continue to free fall, is as good a time as any.

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