Olson's sinker adding luster to rising star

May 01, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

Sometime in the very near future, possibly during the 10-game home stand that opens tonight against the Seattle Mariners, Orioles' reliever Gregg Olson will become the youngest pitcher in baseball history to record 100 saves.

Of course he's already the youngest to register 98, his currentotal, but that's a technicality. The century mark is a much more exotic number.

In addition, before his new beard is fully grown the 25-year-olOlson should surpass the club record of 105 saves set by Tippy Martinez. The significance of the feat would be that Olson has reached this point in a little more than three years, whereas Martinez spent 10 years wearing an Orioles' uniform.

And, as impressive as those figures are, they may be only aindication of the surface Olson could scratch if he stays healthy. At least that is the impression of Mike Flanagan, a close observer of the Orioles' stopper since the start of last year.

"The difference [in Olson] from last year to this year is like nighand day," said Flanagan. "He has a much better idea of what he's doing.

"He has the ability and he's still learning how to pitch. It doesn'always happen that way. Sometimes you don't learn how to pitch until you start to lose your ability."

From every indication, the addition of a sinker, to go with hifastball and trademark curve, is the new look that could take Olson to a higher level. It is a pitch he worked on with new pitching coach Dick Bosman during the Instructional League last October. The sinker hasn't replaced Olson's nasty curveball, his signature pitch, but it has provided him with another option.

"He's like a boy with a new toy," said Flanagan. "Last year, iseemed like it was critical that he threw the first pitch for a strike. Now, if he falls behind, he knows he's got a pitch he can rely on.

"That happened last week against [Yankee first baseman] DoMattingly. He threw the sinker and got a double-play. He came into the clubhouse like a little kid."

Olson smiled when Flanagan's observations were relayed. Hadmits to a certain infatuation with the sinker -- even though one thrown at the wrong altitude cost him a blown save in his first opportunity of the season.

Many times, when that happens, especially to a reliever, thpitch is quickly discarded and forgotten until matters get desperate. Olson wasn't desperate after failing on a career-high eight save opportunities (out of 39) last year, but he was receptive to the idea that an adjustment was in order.

"Every time I face a hitter now, I feel like it's the first time he'seen me, because I've got a new pitch," said Olson. "If it's somebody who has hit me in the past, I just think that he hasn't seen the sinker yet. It's a good pitch for me, and it's something they [opposing hitters] haven't seen."

Since giving up two runs and being charged with a 4-3 loss tToronto in his second appearance of the year, Olson has converted three straight save opportunities. However, as was the case a year ago, he made only occasional appearances during the month of April.

Last season, the opportunities were few because the Orioles los12 of 18 games. This year, it's been the reverse. The Orioles' 13-8 record has included a few late-inning blowouts.

The result is the entire relief corps, not just Olson, has seen itworkload reduced. After 21 games a year ago, Orioles' starters had a 5.50 earned run average, requiring relivers to work 76 innings. Overall, the team ERA was 4.51.

So far this year the starters have an ERA of 3.34 (overall it's 3.05) and the bullpen has worked a total of only 45 1/3 innings. That's an average of almost two less innings per game, and at that pace the relievers would fall more than 200 shy of the major-league high of 557 2/3 innings they pitched a year ago.

While the Orioles played three more games in April than they dia year ago, Olson pitched the same number of times last month (7) as he did the first month of last season. He wound up appearing in 72 games in 1991, tied for second in the American League and the second highest number in club history (behind the 76 Martinez had in 1982).

But many of those were cameo appearances, more for exercisthan effect. He's already had three such appearances this year, but at least the circumstances are more enjoyable.

"I'll take this past April over the one last year any time," saiOlson.

The Orioles, tied with the Yankees for second place in thAmerican League East and two games behind Toronto, will play their next 10 games at home, while the Blue Jays opened a string of 10 straight on the road with a 3-2 loss in Milwaukee last night.

Olson, and his suddenly underworked bullpen buddies, wiladmit it's a lot easier to stay mentally and physically prepared under current circumstances than it was a year ago -- when they performed more often, and enjoyed it less.

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