Park friendly only if pitches are nasty


April 19, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

From yesterday's inaugural First Day Game Following a Night Game, which was also the historic First Game With Both Teams Scoring (and the sure-to-be-treasured First National TV Game, If Only to 30 Percent of the Country), came this other First for Oriole Park at Camden Yards: The first piece of flawed logic.

That, of course, is this suddenly popular notion that the ballpark is going to be pitcher-friendly. Forever. And ever, too.

Sorry, not buying. Not yet, at least. It's too early to make that call.

A good pitchers' ballpark? Maybe, maybe not. It's certainly the talk of the clubhouses. But so far, see, it's not so much a good pitchers' ballpark as a ballpark for good pitchers. Big difference.

The Orioles have allowed five runs in five games, the latest yesterday's windy, chilly 6-1 win. (First Day Game With Frozen Customers?) Not because of any forbidding wind currents. Not because of the short wall in right field. Not because left field is a wide-open pasture.

Because of the pitchers.

(Unwritten Major League Bylaw No. 202-A: If your pitcher is sharp, you can play on a softball diamond and keep the score down.)

The Orioles' tally includes two shutouts by Rick Sutcliffe, one by Ben McDonald and yesterday's one-run job by Mike Mussina. Maybe you could have said it was the ballpark when the Indians were here last week ringing up zeros too. But then the Tigers showed up this weekend and the Orioles have scored 14 runs in two games, thereby totally wrecking the logic. So much for pitcher-friendly.

The Orioles have hit four home runs in the last two days. Yesterday Chris Hoiles clobbered a 418-foot gong and Jeff Tackett hit one that went out on a line faster than you could say, "Why didn't I bring my sweater?" The ballpark had nothing to do with any of it. Pitching had everything to do with it. The Tigers threw fat pitches. The Orioles didn't. Starting to understand?

"Another very good pitching job," manager John Oates said. "We're getting a lot of them lately."

Mussina's performance was notable because he wasn't at his best. His fastball was wild at first. He was in danger of a knockout in the fifth. But he escaped by getting Cecil Fielder to ground to third with the bases loaded, and suddenly, he said, "it all just came together."

He got stronger as the game went on and the Orioles built their lead, finishing with two strikeouts in the eighth, his last inning. Gregg Olson closed out the ninth.

Credit the ballpark? Please. This was about breaking balls, not bricks. This was about a 23-year-old emerging star who has been sharp in 14 of his 15 major-league starts, regardless of stadiums.

"I've seen Mussina pitch a total of about 20 times now, and he's pitched great in 19 of them," Oates said. "He is just a real talent. He just looks terrific."

Oates could have said that about the starter after all five home games, not to mention a couple of the road games in Toronto and Boston. You just can't blame all that on a ballpark.

Of course, it's easy to see how this pitcher-friendly ballpark idea was born. After watching the Orioles' starters throw so dismally the last few years, it's almost a reflex to go searching for some excuse when things go well. (Question: Would this park hold one of Jose Bautista's no-change changeups?)

Excuses may no longer be in order anymore, though, with McDonald's stuff so sharp and Sutcliffe fooling batters again. This is about more than a move to a new ballpark. Oh, yeah.

Not that the park might not indeed end up being more pitcher-friendly than most. You could see how it might happen. The short wall in right will favor fewer batters than Fenway's left-field wall because more hitters are right-handed. The fences are a little deeper than most. And so far the winds have indeed favored pitchers. A wind study undertaken by the Maryland Stadium Authority in 1990 suggested balls hit to right field might fly out fairly easily.

"I've noticed the winds blowing in a lot," Mussina said. "Rick got a lot of fly ball outs Friday. I tend to get a lot of fly balls. It's interesting. But I think it's way too early to say anything for sure. Let's see what happens when the weather changes."

That's when summer hits, temperatures go up and, according to baseball legend, balls start flying. For whatever reason.

"I have a feeling things might change then," Mike Devereaux said yesterday.

Maybe, maybe not. But understand this: It wouldn't have mattered where the Tigers were trying to hit Mussina yesterday. They didn't hit any balls to the warning track. None that might have flown over short fences somewhere else.

Pitching won yesterday's game. Friday's, too. Nothing other than pitching.

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