Seeking control, Olson gives his curve a break

April 14, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

BOSTON -- It's not like Gregg Olson had to start all over again, but rather an impression that a new wrinkle here and there might be beneficial.

When you have recorded 95 saves in three years and are on the verge of being the youngest reliever in history to reach 100, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to start looking for a new game plan.

Making a change in delivery that keeps baserunners from taking more liberties than a pickpocket is an adjustment, not a change in philosophy. Adding a second fastball, one that can induce double-play grounders and reduce the workload is an adjustment, not a departure from style.

Throwing pitches that enable you to get ahead of the hitters is . . . well, it's common sense. And, in Olson's case, if that means easing off his signature pitch, the curveball, so be it.

"We're going to do some things differently this year," said pitching coach Dick Bosman. "We're going to do some things that make sense -- mix it up more. We're going to make it easier than it's been before."

This was after Olson's first save of the year here yesterday, when he pitched two scoreless innings to nail down an 8-6 win over the Boston Red Sox. Eight of the first nine pitches Olson threw, and nine of the 13 he used in his first inning, were fastballs.

He got a double play, after a leadoff single by Mike Greenwell, on a sinker (his new fastball) to Ellis Burks. The curveball came into play on a pair of strikeouts (Phil Plantier in the eighth and Mo Vaughn in the ninth), but after Olson had established the fact he would use the fastball -- often.

"I was just trying to make quality pitches and get ahead," said Olson, admitting that he can't always rely on his curveball. "I can't live on the curveball," he said. "That's a day-to-day thing. The fastball is still the bread-and-butter pitch."

But make no mistake about it, regardless of how he got the job done, Olson's effort yesterday was a vital step.

"Pitching seems to be a matter of confidence," the Orioles' ace reliever said after nailing down an 8-6 win over the Boston Red Sox. "When you have a bad day, your confidence gets shaken a little bit. It's important to go back out the next time and have a good game."

In his previous outing, Olson gave up two runs in the ninth inning to the Toronto Blue Jays to turn a 3-2 lead into a 4-3 loss. His curveball deserted him, he was constantly behind in the count, and the bottom line did little for his self-esteem.

There was no blatant attempt by manager John Oates to alter Olson's approach. But there were a few suggestions.

"The only thing we talked about was getting ahead of the hitters,"said Oates. "If there's some doubt in their mind about what they're going to get, the pitch doesn't have to be perfect.

"The curveball is the toughest pitch in baseball to throw in the strike zone," said Oates. "It's a 'feel' pitch."

The obvious alternative to the curveball is a slider, the hard-breaking pitch preferred by most late-inning relievers because it is easier to control.

Before the question could even be asked yesterday, Oates volunteered the answer. "He's got a slider," Oates said about his closer. "It's a little, tiny one, but he's got it.

"Bos [Bosman] and I have talked about it, and we might break it out sometime here soon."

The problem is that few pitchers, starters or relievers, have been able to master both the slider and the curveball. One is a big breaking pitch, the other much shorter and sharper, almost serving as a changeup for a breaking ball pitcher.

Because his curveball is so devastating, Olson's reputation is as a breaking ball pitcher. The slider, if he can master the pitch without it affecting either his elbow or curveball (in that order), could add yet another weapon to his arsenal.

In yesterday's game, Oates departed from his preferred script and brought Olson in to protect a 7-6 lead at the start of the eighth inning. That's an inning earlier than normal, but at this time of year, with a day off today, it was welcomed by the almost-bearded righthander.

"It's nice to get some innings, to get work," said Olson, who had minimal game competition during the exhibition season. "It's not easy to get work in spring training.

"This year we had a lot of guys fighting for spots [on the roster] who needed innings," said Olson. "I got a lot of work on the side and tried to take advantage of it, but when you face a hitter it adds another element."

That should not be interpreted as meaning Olson wasn't prepared for the start of the season. He was as ready for the loss on Friday as he was for the save yesterday.

The results were different because he had better control -- and a better curveball. "I had pretty good location," said Olson, who nevertheless faced an instant crisis when Greenwell grounded a single to rightfield leading off the eighth inning.

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