So-so in Rochester, Rhodes must have donned cape en route to O's

July 30, 1992|By Jim Henneman

NEW YORK -- It wasn't until there were two outs in the ninth inning last night that Arthur Rhodes displayed a sign of anxiety.

And it had nothing to do with a pennant race that finds the Orioles three games behind the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays and two games ahead of the third-place Milwaukee Brewers.

When Jim Leyritz hit a fly ball to short right field, Rhodes moved around the pitcher's mound with a movement that could best be described as something between a dance and a prance. And after Joe Orsulak caught the ball to complete the Orioles' 6-0 win over the New York Yankees, Rhodes spun around quickly, thrust his hand in the air, and headed in the direction of catcher Jeff Tackett.

He didn't have far to go. Tackett was practically in Rhodes' shadow, and his emotions weren't much different than those of the rookie left-hander.

"With it being my first real complete game in the big leagues [his official first was curtailed by rain after eight innings last Friday], and a shutout, I just wanted to get the ball back in my glove and shake the catcher's hand," said Rhodes (3-0). "And that's what I did."

The transformation of Rhodes from a wild young left-hander to a wily young left-hander in less than a year is amazing to those who have watched what has taken place. His time this season in Triple-A is generally credited with making the difference for Rhodes.

"I really think that has made the difference," said Tackett. "He just understands more about pitching now."

But that explanation may be too simple. After all, Rhodes was only 6-6 at Rochester. In addition, he was promoted mainly because it was his turn to pitch when the Orioles needed someone.

More and more it's beginning to look like Rhodes matured somewhere between Rochester and Baltimore.

Infielder Tommy Shields, who joined the Orioles last weekend, saw all of Rhodes' performances at Rochester. He was amazed by what he saw last night.

When he was asked if last night was typical of how Rhodes had pitched at Rochester, Shields shook his head from side to side. "Not at all," he said.

"He had much better command of his slider -- all of his pitches really," said Shields. "He's pitched like that every time out up here?"

Told that last night's game was basically the same as the other three Rhodes has pitched since his promotion, Shields was obviously impressed. "Down there, when he struck somebody out, he just threw the ball by them," said the infielder. "He was much more in control [last night] than he was at Rochester."

Rhodes' effort last night was made even more impressive by the fact that, for most of the game he had only a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Cal Ripken's two-out single in the third inning that scored Brady Anderson (two hits, his 35th stolen base).

The lead didn't bump up to 3-0 until Bill Ripken broke the family's home run drought with a two-run blast into the left-field seats off Scott Kamieniecki (2-8) in the seventh inning. Mike Devereaux's second homer (15) in as many nights plus a couple more runs in the eighth finally gave Rhodes some margin for error.

Not that he needed it. "We certainly didn't play well," said Yankees manager Buck Showalter, "but much of that had to do with Arthur Rhodes. He has a good-looking young arm."

That's a point that hasn't been disputed since the day Rhodes signed his first pro contract after being a second-round draft choice out of high school in 1988. Harnessing the energy packaged in his left arm has been an ongoing project, with the results now showing more at the highest level than they did in the minor leagues.

"I don't like to make judgments based on the short term," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "But the pattern I see XTC developing has certainly raised my confidence level in him.

"That's four straight times [all Orioles wins] he's gone out and made pitches he's had to make," said Oates.

Rhodes credits a change in his pitching mechanics with his renewed success. "Last year I just threw the ball," he said. "I was throwing across my body and falling off to the side.

"Now, I'm stepping straight toward home plate, I'm not falling off-balance," said Rhodes.

Instead, he's keeping the hitters off-balance. Last night he allowed only five hits and walked just two.

"I'm a totally different pitcher now," said Rhodes. "Now I know I can get big-league hitters out -- and I just try to keep them off-balance."

In the past, keeping hitters off-balance was hardly standard operating procedure for Rhodes. He just turned the ball loose and when it was in the strike zone, generally it was powerful enough to get the job done. When it wasn't, he struggled.

His overall minor-league record (27-26) in enough indication that, as often as not, Rhodes struggled.

But since his second arrival in the big leagues, four weeks ago tomorrow, Rhodes appears to have found the magic button that has transformed him from a thrower to a pitcher. It's a process that is rarely routine, can take varying degrees of time, and sometimes seems to take place overnight.

Although the jury remains out on a final verdict, that appears to be the case with Arthur Lee Rhodes.

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