Oriole pitchers speed toward better season

March 23, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Forget the last two games, this is the way it was supposed to be last year.

Remember?

The Orioles rode into spring training on a ray of optimism. That ray of hope, as it developed, turned into a dark cloud. In a hurry.

But that doesn't dispel the fact that the Orioles, after making a bold move to revamp their offense, came into camp with basically the same everyday players -- and the same big question -- as they did this year.

"Our thinking was that we'd be pretty solid if our pitching held up," said Frank Robinson, then the manager, now an assistant to general manager Roland Hemond. "We thought we'd be competitive in our division."

The addition of Glenn Davis gave the Orioles a bona fide slugger to support Cal Ripken in the lineup. The theory was that Davis would make Ripken a better hitter, but subsequent events proved that to be unnecessary.

Run through the rest of the lineup from a year ago and the names are virtually the same as they are this year. Leo Gomez, Chris Hoiles, Mike Devereaux, Randy Milligan, Joe Orsulak, Bill Ripken, Brady Anderson. Substitute Chito Martinez, who arrived at midseason, for Dwight Evans and you have the guts of the club -- then and now.

When Davis went down with a neck injury that limited him to cameo appearances, it put even more pressure on a pitching staff that turned out to be overmatched.

The pitching came unglued fast enough for Robinson to change jobs before Father's Day. As it turned out, he had no more chance than his pitchers. With Davis gone until the latter weeks of the season, the Orioles went from would-be contenders to pretenders in record time.

So, what is the difference this time around?

For one thing, the cast of players that created early enthusiasm a year ago is still intact. They still catch the ball and, with Davis healthy, should score more runs.

Which brings up the most important, and most notable, difference: the pitching.

Granted, that is still the big if. But the guard has changed. Finesse, for the most part, is out. Power, for the most part, is in.

"The arms make the 'ifs' not quite as big," said John Oates, who replaced Robinson as manager last May 23. He has a favorite expression, which he has used often this spring, to emphasize the difference.

"They [the starters] can blacken your eye," said Oates. "Their chances are better because they throw the ball hard enough to make a mistake and get away with it.

"I have a lot of respect for Jeff Ballard and Davey Johnson," Oates said of half the Orioles' rotation at the start of last year. "They were able to accomplish some things. But the fact is they had to be letter perfect to succeed. They couldn't afford mistakes."

In case your memory needs a hasty refresher course, the other seven pitchers who went north with the Orioles a year ago were: Jose Mesa, Jeff Robinson, Paul Kilgus, Jose Bautista, Mike Flanagan, Mark Williamson and Gregg Olson.

Ben McDonald was on the disabled list, Bob Milacki went to Hagerstown to work out some mechanical flaws and Mike Mussina, perhaps the key to the equation this year, was fine-tuning in Rochester.

At this point there are 12 pitchers who figure seriously in the Orioles' plans for the start of the season. Milacki, McDonald, Mussina, Mesa, Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis are the starters. Lefthanders Jim Poole, Mike Flanagan and Dennis Rasmussen plus righthanders Todd Frohwirth, Mark Williamson and Olson are the relievers.

Poole is likely to start the season on the disabled list and the odd man out of the starting rotation probably will force Oates to decide between Frohwirth and Williamson. Regardless of how the staffs are measured, there is no comparison between now and a year ago.

Mussina looks to be the biggest difference, but Sutcliffe, Davis and Mesa also are key pieces to the overall puzzle.

"One guy can sometimes change not only your whole staff, but your whole club," said Robinson, alluding to the potential impact of a pitcher of Mussina's obvious caliber. "Milacki was not healthy at the start of last year; McDonald hasn't been healthy at the end of the last two springs; and Mesa wasn't completely healthy last year either."

When the Orioles ripped off 12 wins in their first 15 exhibitions (they are 12-5 after yesterday's 5-0 loss to Texas), they created some excitement. But the caution flag was quickly raised because, basically, the team hadn't changed as much as the results indicated.

Is it possible that the addition of Mussina, Sutcliffe, Davis and possibly Rasmussen can make this much difference? Maybe not that much, but since those four represent 40 percent of the staff, they figure to have more than a minimal impact.

"I don't like to talk about what could have been," said Robinson, "and you can't get carried away, but yes, this is what we envisioned. We thought this team could perform like this.

"What excites me so far is not so much the won-lost record, but the way we have performed. Not just throwing the ball, but the way we've executed on the field. We haven't really hit a lot, but we've scored runs. We've been very opportunistic.

"You have to remember, it's spring training, and there's no set formula [for spring training games], but it's always good to win games.

"All teams hit a dead spell in spring training, that's why I always felt the last 10 days were the most important. But we've demonstrated that we can perform and hopefully the depth in the starting pitching will take the pressure off the bullpen.

"Our thinking was that we had to add at least two veteran starting pitchers who could get us deeper into the game. That makes the bullpen a lot better."

There are still two weeks to go, and postseason tickets don't have to be fitted into the budget just yet, but the Orioles have rediscovered that ray of optimism.

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