Taken for 7-for-8 ride by Thomas, Mussina is anxious to land

May 15, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- Neither John Oates nor Mike Mussina need to be reminded of the numbers. Frank Thomas looms ever larger on the statistical sheet than he does in person.

And at 6 feet 5 and 230 pounds, give or take a meal, Thomas is very large.

Against the Orioles generally and Mussina particularly, Thomas has created more havoc than 2-year-old twins in a china shop. As awesome as his career numbers are against the club (.439, seven home runs, 20 RBIs), they pale in comparison to the damage he's inflicted on Mussina.

For starters, Thomas has an .875 batting average (7-for-8) -- and that's his smallest number. He also has walked twice, so his on-base percentage is .900. And five of his hits (two homers, three doubles) have been for extra bases, giving him a slugging percentage of 2.000.

That's more than enough to get your attention, so suffice it to say that Oates, Mussina and the rest of the pitching staff have noticed.

"I know the numbers, you don't have to tell me," said Oates. "Mike knows them, so you don't have to tell him. Just write them and let it go at that."

OK, so here's the good news: Thomas is hitting only .367 (18-for-49) against the rest of the staff. But not to worry, better times are ahead. The manager, fueled more by resolve than remorse, practically guarantees it.

"We're going to do better," Oates said firmly, shortly after the Orioles started this brief road trip with a two-game sweep of the Rangers in Texas. He won't have to wait long to find out because the Orioles tonight begin a three-game weekend series here against Thomas and the White Sox.

As luck would have it, Mussina (4-0) gets the first chance to rearrange the ugly numbers Thomas has posted. He will pitch the first game as the Orioles try to atone for a 2-1 series loss at home last weekend to the team that has since moved into first place in the American League's Western Division.

Oates, naturally, deals in generalities rather than specifics when discussing Thomas and the lack of success the Orioles have had against the huge first baseman.

"We've known for the last couple of games that we had to do something different," he said. "But we have some people [now] who can throw stuff to get him out. Don't get me wrong -- Frank Thomas is going to hit because he's a good hitter.

"He's going to get his share of hits. But we have guys who can throw the pitches to get him out."

The book on Thomas is hardly a secret. The entire American League has followed the same script, without a whole lot of success.

High hard stuff is the prescription for success against Thomas. The problem is his size, and the fact he stands well off the plate, making an inside pitch look particularly dangerous to pitchers.

"My rule of thumb if you don't know a guy is to pitch him away," said Oates. "Usually that's where he can do the least damage. But he [Thomas] stands off the plate for a reason -- he wants the ball away."

The most recent evidence of which were the two home runs Thomas hit against the Orioles last week. "Mussina threw him a changeup away and [Gregg] Olson threw him a fastball that was well outside the strike zone," said Oates.

Mussina made his major-league debut in the new Comiskey Park last Aug. 4 and lost 1-0 -- on a home run by you know who. Things have not improved much since then.

"I don't want to take any credit away from him because he's a good hitter, but I've made some mistakes," Mussina said of his duels with Thomas.

Does he have any different strategy in mind this time around? "You mean like throwing low and behind him?" Mussina replied.

"I still have to throw him something in the strike zone to get him out," said Mussina. "I just have to make better pitches."

Starting with Mussina tonight, expect the Orioles to pound Thomas inside with high fastballs.

"He's an excellent off-speed hitter and he has a good knowledge of the strike zone," said Oates. "You can't throw him the same thing all the time, but we know where to go when we have to make a pitch to get him out.

"But we have to throw that pitch for a strike."

"Up and in, down and away" is an accepted method for pitching to almost any hitter, regardless of the level of play. Only half of it applies to Thomas.

And when a pitcher misses with a fastball inside, a walk is probably the best thing that can happen. Mussina would be the first to agree.

Oates promises that the Orioles are "going to do better" against Thomas. But that's like predicting it will stop raining, or the sun will go down or come out.

The question is how much better will the Orioles do? The answer undoubtedly will have a lot to do with how they fare against the White Sox this weekend.

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