For the better part of three weeks, Mark Williamson has been the forgotten man in the Orioles' bullpen. A situation pitcher without any situations.
Before last night the righthander had appeared in three games (two innings) in the last 18 days. It was a combination of circumstances -- a slightly tender elbow, a 15-inning game during which he threw 74 pitches and two predominantly lefthanded-hitting teams -- that kept him on the sidelines.
"He does need to pitch more than he is right now," manager John Oates admitted last night after the Orioles and Williamson lost another one-run decision, 6-5, to the Milwaukee Brewers. "Velocity-wise, stuff-wise he's fine," said Oates. "But his control is not as sharp as it needs to be and some of the problem is inactivity.
"We just finished facing two teams [Seattle and Chicago] that have a lot of lefthanded hitters. It isn't that he can't get lefthanders out," said Oates, "but our lefthanded pitchers have been doing a good job. There just haven't been any situations for him."
The same held true for Todd Frohwirth, one of three relievers who preceded Williamson last night. Frohwirth had not pitched in more than a week.
The lack of work for the pair had a direct bearing on how Oates handled starter Roy Smith, who was removed after 1 2/3 innings with the score 1-0. "I had two guys [Williamson and Frohwirth] who had to pitch," said Oates. "One guy had two innings in 18 days, the other hadn't pitched in a week.
"It was a situation where I didn't have to try and squeeze four or five innings out of my starter, because I had nine innings in the bullpen if I needed it. The first thing is to win the game, and I think Roy is one of those guys who either has it or he doesn't.
"He was missing low and pitching behind in the count, and it's tough for a pitcher like him to do that. When he did get guys out they were hitting line drives."
Oates went to his bullpen early, but before Frohwirth and Williamson became factors, newcomer Stacy Jones completed Smith's slate by allowing a two-run double to Darryl Hamilton and then giving up two more runs on his own.
That left the Orioles down 5-0 (the 32nd time this year they've trailed by at least three runs before the fourth inning), setting up yet another futile comeback.
By the time Williamson entered the game, the score was 5-4 and he slipped a called third strike past Paul Molitor to end the eighth inning. In either of the last two years (when he was 18-7 overall), the Orioles might have scored twice instead of once and Williamson (3-5) would've turned the game over to closer Gregg Olson. "Last year I would've had a win," said the righthander. "This year I'm just sucking up losses."
Robin Yount was Williamson's downfall in the ninth. With one out, Hamilton singled and took off for second on Williamson's next pitch, which Yount lined into the right-centerfield alley.
"I swear you could put a flag out there and he could hit it," Williamson said of Yount. "But I have no qualms about throwing him a first-pitch fastball."
The result of that fastball, however, was something else. "To show you how lousy I'm going," said Williamson, "if he hits it a little softer it's caught, and if he hits it a little harder it bounces over the fence [for a ground-rule double] and we still have a chance. It's frustrating."
The second half of Williamson's assessment most likely was more wishful thinking than accurate, because if Yount had hit the ball much harder it would've been a two-run homer instead of a one-run double.
"There's no excuse tonight," said Williamson, more than aware of his inactivity of late, but not willing to blame it for the outcome.
"Inactivity affects you more mentally than physically," he said. "When you're pitching regularly you get into a flow, you make pitches automatically. When you're not, you're second-guessing yourself on what pitch to throw on a certain count."
As Oates pointed out, there was enough evidence to suggest that Williamson's control has suffered because of his layoff. Of the 22 pitches he threw last night, only nine found the strike zone. And two of those had an impact only when they landed.
"It's the same script," said Oates. "How many times have we seen it? We have enough fight to get back into the game, but we can't get over the hump. I wish I had an explanation for why we can win on the road and can't win at home."
Under Oates the Orioles have an 18-17 record on the road, but are only 11-21 at home. Overall, they are 16-32 (.333) at home, the worst record in the major leagues, and 26-30 (.464) on the road. In addition, they are 8-23 in games decided by one run, 5-18 since Oates took over.
Those numbers will be closely examined at the end of the season, but it's doubtful if explanations will be any easier than they are now.