Now, it's Olson who's baffled by his pitching

MIKE LITTWIN

August 28, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Ask Gregg Olson to discuss his season and watch the eyes go dark, the face grow long. In case you were wondering, the Orioles stopper takes these things hard.

"I know it's not a terrible year," he begins, "but it sure feels like it."

It is a terrible year and it isn't. He has 26 saves -- seventh in the league -- but they're measured against a career-high seven blown chances. Opponents are hitting .268 against him (including 21 hits in his past 13 2/3 innings). In his first two years, they hit a combined .202. They spent each at-bat trying, as much as anything, not to look foolish against the nastiest curveball anyone ever hoped to see.

L No, it's not a terrible season. What it is, is a so-so year.

"For him," says his pitching coach, Al Jackson, who suggests that expectations are a little unreasonable. "You can't have a great year every year. No one does."

"We're accustomed to Gregg blowing everyone away," manager John Oates says. "He's the same way. He's a perfectionist. He expects to get everyone out. But, remember, he has 26 saves. In an off season, he's still going to have 30."

It is an off season. He isn't getting everyone out. There was one game this season when he couldn't get anyone out. And he has yet to put together a run of games, as he has in the past, where he's virtually unhittable.

Why?

It's actually a two-part question. The first: What's wrong with Gregg Olson? And the second: Is anything wrong with Gregg Olson?

"I've been trying to figure it out," Olson says. "The curveball is as good as ever. The fastball is as good as ever. I think my control is better than ever. Statistically, you'd say my rookie year was my best year, last year second and this year the worst. But I think it should be the other way around. I think I'm a better pitcher now than I've ever been.

"It's frustrating. I wish I could say I knew what was wrong, but I don't."

He spends long, sleepless nights considering what might be wrong. He boils inside considering what's wrong. His problem is, he doesn't know if anything is wrong.

Frank Robinson, his previous manager, thinks Olson has a few problems, beginning with thinking about his problems too much. He thinks Olson goes away from the curveball as his out pitch too often. He thinks Olson isn't as fearless as he once was.

"He had that aura of invincibility," Robinson says. "Now, he gives up a hit, you see a little doubt in his face."

Robinson tells a story about Olson last year facing Cecil Fielder. On an 0-2 pitch, Olson struck Fielder out on a fastball that was too good a pitch. When Robinson asked him why he didn't work the count, Olson told him, "I knew I could get him."

Now, Olson says his confidence is up and down. "A roller coaster," he says. "I have a good week and it's up, and I give up a run or a blow a save and it dips. I know that's a problem."

Oates thinks there could be more. When told Olson believes his fastball, curveball and control are all improved, Oates is, well, unconvinced.

"I could argue with all three points," he says. "At times, he has thrown as well as he ever has, but not consistently.

"But I don't see people swinging and missing at his curveball like they used to. I don't see people taking his fastball for a called third strike like they used to. Whether it's the batters making adjustments -- and you make adjustments against pitchers -- or whether it's something else, I don't know."

The something else could all be in Olson's head. He takes the poor outings home with him. He has this sense that he is letting his teammates down. He thinks people are disappointed in him. If anything, Olson doesn't give himself a break, particularly in a season when many relievers are having problems.

"I look back at games, and I try to figure out what happened," Olson says. "You look at a broken bat here or a ball that falls in. You count them on your fingers and say it's not too bad, but then you get to a handful and you figure something must be wrong.

"This is not what I wanted. It's not what I expected. It's definitely a letdown."

That's what comes of his position. He's out there by himself, night after night, his game to save or not to save. There isn't any position quite like it, where your failures are more pronounced than your successes.

"It's the one job where you never get to have any fun," Oates says.

But Olson, who isn't having any fun, should remember that he's 24. He has 90 saves, more than anyone else ever has had at his age. Sure, there are things to work on. He has problems holding runners. Maybe he has to learn to spot the fastball better. Maybe he has to adjust to the hitters' adjustments. But hardly anyone has better stuff or better makeup than Olson. And here's the bottom line: How many pitchers would love to have an off year like this one?

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