Sutcliffe sets stage for new era with blasphemous opening act

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 07, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

It was a sight every bit as breathtaking as the fans gathered on the tiered rooftops of 250 W. Pratt St.: An Orioles starting pitcher finishing the sixth inning, then the seventh, the eighth and -- have mercy! -- the ninth.

A heretic, that Rick Sutcliffe.

Orioles starters don't pitch nine innings. They work four or five, allow a zillion runs and curse their luck. Remember last year's Opening Day pitcher, Jeff Ballard? His new team, the Louisville Redbirds, will hear all about it.

Yet here was Sutcliffe, pitching a five-hit shutout yesterday to beat Cleveland, 2-0. Here was the veteran anchor the Orioles have lacked since trading Mike Boddicker in the summer of 1988. Here was a starting pitcher who -- would you believe it? -- actually knew how to pitch.

Off with his arm!

Blasphemy!

Bob Milacki gushed, "Every time he needed a pitch, he made it."

Ben McDonald marveled, "They didn't know what was coming. They had no idea."

And Randy Milligan was so overcome by the moment, he labeled Sutcliffe's performance a "work of art."

Just like last year, eh, Randy?

"We didn't have someone like that last year," Milligan said. "The closest was probably Bob Milacki. The difference between him and Bob is he knows how to close a hitter. If Bob doesn't learn anything from him this year, it's a crying shame."

Milacki will learn. So will McDonald, and Mike Mussina, and Jose Mesa. This was the Orioles' idea behind signing Sutcliffe -- a healthy Sutcliffe. This was also manager John Oates' idea behind pitching him in the first game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Oh, how Sutcliffe closed hitters yesterday. He got a swinging third strike on a rising 3-2 fastball to Mark Whiten. He got a called third strike on a 3-2 batting-practice fastball to Alex Cole. And he got a big double play on a 2-0 sinker to Whiten that erased a leadoff single in the seventh.

He changed speeds, shifted locations, threw only 110 pitches. Milacki couldn't believe how many weak flyballs he induced on 2-0 counts. "He's up and down, then all of a sudden, he's in and out," catcher Chris Hoiles said. "Even as a catcher, you don't know where the next ball is going to be."

It's called pitching, and it makes the rest of the game easy. No one noticed that 1-2 hitters Brady Anderson and Joe Orsulak went a combined 0-for-7 yesterday. The Orioles got enough runs on Hoiles' ground-rule double -- love that trampoline warning track -- and Bill Ripken's suicide squeeze.

Sutcliffe wasn't afraid to throw strikes, knowing the Orioles are the first major-league team to make fewer than 100 errors three straight seasons. Nor was he afraid to elevate his pitches, for in the words of pitching coach Dick Bosman, "In this park, at this time of year, it's no big deal getting the ball hit in the air."

His one true scare came in the second inning on Sandy Alomar's fly to deep center with a man on second. But, in perhaps the game's biggest play, Mike Devereaux overcame a bad read to make a stunning over-the-shoulder, inning-ending catch.

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said the play evoked memories of Willie Mays robbing another Indian (Vic Wertz) in the 1954 World Series, and also of Steve Finley crashing into the right-field wall for the catch that ignited the Orioles on Opening Day 1989.

This time Devereaux narrowly avoided the wall.

But, as Hemond said, "You know what happened that year."

Indeed, just imagine if the Orioles had a veteran like Sutcliffe to pitch that raucous final weekend in Toronto in '89. Yesterday he blocked out the Opening Day madness by putting on his headphones and listening to country music.

"I came in to see how he was doing because of the food poisoning," Oates said, aware Sutcliffe was sick in bed from 4:30 p.m. Sunday to 8 a.m. yesterday. "I don't know if he was listening to Alabama or what, but he didn't even want to talk to me. I just left."

Sutcliffe reacted no differently when President Bush strolled through the clubhouse 15 minutes before he was to warm up. "Anybody in his right mind would jump up, shake his hand, shine his shoes, whatever," Sutcliffe said. "I just turned up my country music a little bit louder and tried to pretend he wasn't there."

Said Cal Ripken, "When you play behind him, you know he won't rattle, you know he won't be in awe of the situation. I'm sure he had butterflies. But he knew how to handle the butterflies. His experience really shined through. He took control. He led the way."

Take it from Sutcliffe's buddy, Charles Barkley.

As he told Hemond, "You've got a good man."

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