Rhodes helps Orioles turn up the heat

JOHN EISENBERG

July 30, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- It was not a night for intellectualizing. Let's make that clear. The poets had no place at Yankee Stadium last night.

You could take your "timeless chess match" and put it somewhere, buddy. Brilliance on the verdant diamond? Huh? Speak English, pal. (Author's note: This paragraph was designed to give the reader a "feel" for what it was like in the stands last night in the Bronx.)

No, the Orioles' 6-0 win was as simple as baseball gets. Arthur Rhodes threw fastballs -- fast balls indeed. The Yankees swung and missed.

"That's some pretty serious heat that kid has," Yankees left fielder Randy Velarde said.

Yes. So. You can imagine a game as drawn by Arnold Schwarzenegger. You wanted subtlety? Nuance? Shades of meaning? A labyrinth with nooks and crannies? Forget it. This one was all smoking mitts and hurried goodbyes.

ArthurBall. A new ballgame for the Orioles, and just in time.

"He's the hardest thrower on the team," catcher Jeff Tackett said.

Harder than Alan Mills?

"Yes. Throws hard."

Ben McDonald? Mike Mussina?

"Yes. Throws very, very hard. Consistently 92-to-95 miles an hour. I'd say it is the hardest fastball I've ever caught."

Which is hard, huh, Tack?

"Extremely hard."

Certainly too hard for the Yankees, although that is not saying much. If there is any caution to be taken on a night when the Orioles decided to forget that Rhodes was ever possibly a temporary Oriole this year, a night when his five-hit shutout improved his record to 3-0 with a 1.76 ERA, it was that the Yankees are 12th in the league in hitting and last night were without three of their top four power hitters.

"Not the greatest-hitting ballclub," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said.

But you can only take so much caution. Rhodes was no less than brilliant. He threw his fastball inside, outside, up, down. He fooled Yankees with sliders and changeups. He made them look awful with curveballs for strike three.

And the funny part was that, in the beginning, the Yankees were not even impressed.

"We had a scouting report that said he threw a 96 mph fastball like [Seattle's] Randy Johnson, which is as hard as it gets," Velarde said, "but after I flew out in the first inning, I came back to the dugout and said, 'Guys, it isn't as hard as they said.' I thought we'd get some hits.

"But I will tell you what: he was still very, very fast all the way through the ninth inning. Fast enough that you couldn't relax when you saw a curve or anything else coming. If you relaxed, it just went right by you. And then he mixed in that curveball that looked the same for about 50 feet, and then the bottom dropped out of it, and, man, you were in trouble there."

All of which begs a rhetorical question: When does the bottom of the rotation become the top?

The Orioles' top three starters -- Mussina, McDonald and Rick Sutcliffe --have struggled these last two months, winning just six of their last 32 starts. The club's season was foundering. In trouble. No team can last in a pennant race without more consistency from the top starters. And then along comes Rhodes.

The Orioles called him up on July 9 because there was a hole in the bottom of their rotation for that one night, and that one night only. Before the game, manager Johnny Oates stood on the field at Camden Yards and admitted that his instincts told him Rhodes still belonged at Rochester this year, that he still needed more polish.

Three weeks later, the bottom of the rotation has become the top.

Any arguments?

"He has been absolutely amazing," Oates said. "Forget comparing him to last year. He didn't even pitch like this in the spring. I wish I could explain it to you."

And so the Orioles finally have in place the nut of the rotation of their dreams, the one they have been thinking about for the last two years: Rhodes, Mussina and McDonald, ages 22, 23 and 24. Maybe it is too soon to expect a division title, but are you going to spoil the fun on a night when the Blue Jays lost and the Orioles pulled within three games of first? Yes, after all that losing last week.

But see, the Orioles are getting well here, which is something you can do at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees throw Scott Sanderson and Scott Kamieniecki at you back-to-back and make errors and base-running mistakes and all those helpful things the Yankees do now. And it helps when, on the night after a big game from McDonald, there is a new face to throw another big game.

You could say it sure beats Bob Milacki, but everyone knows that, right?

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