Tackett, Sutcliffe recharge O's battery

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

With more than a half-season to play, Rick Sutcliffe has already won as many games as any Orioles pitcher did a year ago -- and won't talk about it.

His current batterymate, catcher Jeff Tackett, is closing in on a career-high in home runs -- and won't try to explain it.

Given that scenario, it might be said that Sutcliffe and Tackett were an unlikely combination as the Orioles hammered the Milwaukee Brewers, 12-3, last night at Camden Yards. Sutcliffe (10-6) went seven innings for the win. Tackett opened the scoring with a three-run homer (No. 5) and then broke open the game with a two-run double.

Sutcliffe's accomplishment to this point, perhaps, isn't worth talking about. Any team that produces only one 10-game winner (Bob Milacki, who was 10-9) figures to be as bad as the Orioles were last year (67-95).

But Tackett? That's another story, one certainly worth exploring, even if it can't be fully explained.

"That's one thing I told you guys I didn't want to hear -- last year," Sutcliffe said when it was mentioned that he had matched Milacki's team-high total in 1991. "There's a bad taste about last year in the mouths of a lot of people around here. There will be a lot of people who will win 10 games with this club."

Sutcliffe admittedly labored in the early innings last night.

"You might not believe it," he said, "but at 7:15 I was throwing hard [while warming up before the hour and 17-minute rain delay]. By 8:50 I was throwing ----."

Shortly thereafter, the Orioles weren't feeling much better. They had runners on first and third with nobody out and didn't score in the first inning, and were close to squandering another opportunity in the second.

That's when Tackett caught a high fastball from Ricky Bones on the fat part of his bat and Brady Anderson hit the next pitch for his 13th homer of the year. At precisely that point, Sutcliffe

started feeling like he had at 7:15. "After we got the four runs, I felt pretty good," he said.

He wasn't alone.

"When we didn't score in the first inning, I thought we went flat," said manager Johnny Oates. "Then Tack hit the three-run homer and it changed everything. A lot of what happened after that could be attributed to his home run."

All around the country there are probably more than a few ex-minor-league pitchers trying to identify Tackett with home runs. This is the same guy who went the first five years of a less than robust eight-year minor-league career without hitting.

He had 12 total going into this season, exactly half of them last year, when he established his career-high with Triple-A Rochester. In three successive years (1987-89) he did not drive in more than 18 runs, but he has 12 RBIs in only 55 at-bats this season.

And with every successful swing, Tackett is expected to explain what has happened. The first thing to be understood, despite the previous numbers, is that the change didn't come overnight -- and hitting home runs is not exactly foreign to Tackett.

"This is how I used to play when the Orioles drafted me," said Tackett. "I was a No. 3 or No. 4 hitter in high school and [American] Legion ball."

When he didn't start his professional career by doing the same thing, he heard the same line over and over. "People were always saying a guy as big as me should be hitting home runs," said Tackett, listed at 6 feet 2 and 206 pounds.

"Maybe I just didn't know how to hit home runs then, I don't know. They told me to hit home runs I had to stand this way or

that way, or I had to look for certain pitches or look for the ball in certain areas.

"But they were talking to an 18- or 19-year-old kid who just came into the game and was still trying to learn how to play. I don't know, maybe I was just a slow learner. Maybe it just took me longer than other guys."

If so, Orioles batting coach Greg Biagini thinks Tackett is making up for it. "He's absorbed a lot in the last three years," said Biagini. "When I had him at Class AA [1988], he put more emphasis on his catching, rather than his hitting."

At first the progress was gradual. He didn't hit his first home run as a professional until he reached Rochester [1989]. And from a player who only once had more than nine extra-base hits in any season, Tackett had 26 last year -- 18 doubles and two triples to go with his half-dozen home runs.

"Before, he didn't generate enough bat speed to hit home runs," said Biagini, who constantly preaches that aspect of hitting.

Now, instead of occasionally reaching the warning track with a fly ball, Tackett knows the feeling of making a deposit into what used to be known as the cheap seats.

He doesn't take all of the credit. Instead he thinks his rookie status has something to do with his early success.

"They [opposing pitchers] don't know me and I don't know them," he said. "I'm still learning -- about hitting and catching."

And occasionally he admits to wondering if this is all happening to him. "Sure, every once in a while it's like I want to pinch myself and make sure it's all real," he said. "Hopefully it'll stay like that and I'll want to be pinching myself all year."

Meanwhile, with five more games to play before they reach the midway point of the season, the Orioles already have 19 home runs from their catchers -- 14 by the injured Chris Hoiles and five by Tackett, his replacement.

They also have 25 home runs and 97 RBIs from outfielders Anderson (13-48) and Mike Devereaux (12-49). Last night both connected to help Sutcliffe to reach a semi-milestone.

But, on a night when Cal Ripken had his 17-game hitting streak stopped, and the Orioles still managed 16 hits, it was one swing by Tackett that set the tone.

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