Phillies' Williams keeps defense on its toes

September 28, 1991|By M.G. Missanelli | M.G. Missanelli,Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Ask any Phillie what it's like playing behind Mitch Williams and you get The Look. It's a roll-your-eyes expression, a look that at once indicates concentration, exhilaration, fear, security and exasperation.

The shortstop worries about more responsibility, about how with Williams in the game, he must turn a double play or stop a grounder from going through to save a run.

The second baseman sees excitement in the ballpark, the bases full and the crowd standing, and he figures it's going to pump him up.

The catcher thinks about the fear he'll see in the batter's eyes, as both he and the batter wonder where Williams' 93 mph heater will land.

The right fielder sees the pitcher walking two, perhaps three batters, and knows in his heart that Williams will get the side out anyway.

And the first baseman, well, the first baseman can do without any of it.

"It's a nightmare," said John Kruk.

In just one season, reliever Mitch Williams has carved himself a place in Phillies history. He is baseball's version of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Through his unorthodox and irregular style, and his considerable ups and downs, Williams is a pitcher who causes as many sleepless nights to his teammates as the opposition.

"It's a wild ride, man," said catcher Darren Daulton. "I mean, he's just a guy who pitches with his hair on fire out there. I've seen him throw between innings, so smooth and with such control that you wonder why he doesn't do it like that all the time. Once the inning is on, he gets so excited, he's just pumping the ball up there. But I can tell you that there aren't a lot of guys who like to step in and hit against him."

Williams has just concluded one of the most remarkable months any big-league pitcher has ever had.

In August, Williams was 8-1, with five saves and a 1.21 ERA. The eight victories tied a Phillies club record, set by Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1917, and came within one of matching the modern National League record for victories in a month -- last achieved by Alexander in 1920, when he was with the Cubs. The modern major-league record is 10, by George Waddell of the Philadelphia A's in 1902.

In August, Williams had a scoreless streak of 15 2/3 innings and a six-game winning streak, and he was a National League Player of the Week.

And yet, it hasn't been all good. When a closer gets decisions, it usually means he's blown a few save opportunities. During the streak, Williams blew four of nine save chances.

On Aug. 9 against the Expos, he came in with two men on in the eighth and the Phillies leading, 3-2, and promptly walked two hitters to tie the game. The Phils won in the ninth.

Recently in Atlanta, he gave up a run after yielding a single and two walks to load the bases, blowing a 5-4 lead in the eighth.

"I've been opening up my front leg too soon, and that's been preventing me from throwing across my body," Williams said of the recent spate of ineffectiveness, during which he's blown three of four save opportunities. "Had I been able to see that a little earlier, I may have been a little more effective."

But talking mechanics with Williams may be like talking symphonic music with a washboardist. Basically, Williams simply pounds hard fast balls and sliders up there with a delivery dripping with torque and thrust.

He says he pitches to spots, but concedes that his basic philosophy is to "know who's up there and know where his nitro zone is." He doesn't worry about the men he has put on base, just about what's between him and the batter.

But his erratic style is one that most Phillies have learned to live with.

"As a fielder, it's terrible when Mitch is out there, because he puts so much more pressure on you," said shortstop Dickie Thon. "I don't think he concentrates out there until he gets in trouble. That's OK once in a while, but it'll wear your team down in the end."

"You're going to see some walks, you're going to see some strikeouts, and you're going to have to be prepared to cover first base when somebody bunts because Mitch's delivery brings him to the third-base line," said second baseman Mickey Morandini. "But it's fun. There's nothing more exciting than having the crowd hanging on every one of his pitches."

"No matter how many guys he puts on, I always have the feeling he's going to get out of it," right fielder Dale Murphy said. "If he walks the first two guys, it's not necessarily an indication he's in trouble, but that he'll get stronger. That's pretty weird, I guess."

Former Baltimore manager Earl Weaver used to say that relief pitcher Don Stanhouse caused him enough anguish to smoke several packs of cigarettes in the dugout. Does Phils manager Jim Fregosi suffer while Williams is on the mound?

"Anguish? I won't answer that question," Fregosi said, smiling.

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