Sutcliffe justifies confidence of Oates in five-hit shutout win

April 07, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

It would be nice if John Oates could say this was all part of a master plan that dates to Dec. 19, 1991, the day Rick Sutcliffe signed a contract.

As smart as the manager might be -- and yesterday's opener made him look like a genius -- his cerebral powers aren't that strong.

In fact, when Oates named Sutcliffe to start the first regular-season game ever played in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, there were legitimate reasons to question the decision.

The choice meant the 35-year-old veteran would pitch two of the first five games of the season. It also meant that, arguably, two of the team's three best pitchers (Bob Milacki and Ben McDonald) would miss the weekend series in Toronto.

But after Sutcliffe threw a masterly, five-hit, 2-0 shutout to beat the Cleveland Indians before an audience of 44,568, Oates admitted he had the 6-foot-7 right-hander penciled in for Opening Day right from the start. However, he didn't expect such grandiose results.

"He's not going to pitch the way he pitched today," Oates cautioned. "That was not a typical Rick Sutcliffe game -- he threw way too few pitches. But, yes, I had planned all along that he would pitch this game.

"That's one of the reasons we got him -- to pitch this type of game. He could've made it difficult for me if he had pitched poorly [in spring training]. Then I would've had to stick my neck out."

The way he said it, Oates left little doubt he was willing to risk his neck as long as Sutcliffe was healthy. "And he proved that to me the first time he threw in Florida," said the manager. "Once I saw him throw, I didn't have any questions about his health. I just hoped he could build from there."

Sutcliffe did, but at no time did he give an indication he would do what he did yesterday. "There's no way in the world I would've expected a five-hit shutout," said Oates.

For good reason. Sutcliffe's last complete game came in 1989.

And maybe it was the most meaningful step in a comeback for Sutcliffe, who was idle most of the last two years and rejected by the Cubs after last season.

"When I look back, this will be one of the highlights," said Sutcliffe, emotionless throughout until pumping a fist after Paul Sorrento took a called third strike to end the game. "But we still have a lot of baseball left to play."

And Oates is hoping Sutcliffe, who has started only 23 major-league games in the last two years, will be able to take the ball regularly every fifth day.

"He's a tough guy to manage," said Oates, who has been both a teammate and coach with Sutcliffe in the past. "Nobody can read him. You never know if he's pitching around guys or not.

"I've seen him walk two guys to get to somebody he knows he can get out. But he's capable of doing what he did today."

For the most part, Sutcliffe was effective but hardly spectacular during spring training. He was, in fact, the least effective of the six candidates for the starting rotation.

Yet Oates never wavered from his conviction that Sutcliffe was the best candidate to start the season. "These guys [the young pitchers in the Orioles' starting rotation] can learn something by watching him pitch," said Oates.

"That was Rick Sutcliffe," said first baseman Glenn Davis, who faced him while playing for the Houston Astros. "He was hitting his spots -- he was in control of the game, and when he's in control he's tough to beat."

In addition to the Indians, Sutcliffe had to overcome the aftereffects of food poisoning that hit several members of the Orioles after Saturday's exhibition game. He lost 8 pounds overnight and was still not at full strength yesterday.

"The weather helped a lot," said Sutcliffe. "If it had been real hot, I would've had a tough time."

Through most of the spring, Sutcliffe struggled with his control, but yesterday he issued only one walk and struck out six. "If you look at the [few] number of errors this team has made the last three years, if you keep the ball in the park and don't walk anybody, you can win a lot of games," said Sutcliffe.

He came close to letting one get out of the park only once -- in the second inning when Sandy Alomar hit a drive to deep center field. After a slight hesitation, Mike Devereaux ran down the mistake, banging into the wall after making the catch.

With a runner on second and two outs, that play eliminated a run. Sutcliffe called it one of the best catches he has seen and Devereaux, citing the Opening Day circumstances, ranked it high on his personal list.

It took the Orioles three more innings to break a scoreless tie, getting two runs on a walk to Sam Horn, a single by Leo Gomez, a double by catcher Chris Hoiles and a perfectly executed squeeze bunt by Bill Ripken.

That was all Sutcliffe needed. He allowed two runners in the same inning only once all day (the fifth).

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