Sutcliffe's pitching becoming unsafe at slower speed

JOHN EISENBERG

July 31, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- First inning, first batter: Rick Sutcliffe tried to throw a fastball by the Yankees' Dion James, who walloped it into the right-field corner for a double. On the Orioles bench, manager Johnny Oates turned to pitching coach Dick Bosman.

L "I don't like this," Oates said. "I don't like this at all."

Already the manager knew his starter was in trouble.

"There just wasn't enough fastball there," Oates said later, after Sutcliffe had allowed all the runs in the Yankees' 6-3 win.

It is the one problem common to Sutcliffe's outings in this losing streak that has become so elephantine: He can't throw hard anymore.

"His velocity is not what it consistently was earlier in the season," Oates said.

Any pitcher other than the junkiest junkballer must throw reasonably hard to win, and Sutcliffe has not won in a month. In six July starts he went 0-5 with a 5.85 ERA. Only Clark Clifford and the National League All-Stars had poorer months.

If Sutcliffe were 26 instead of 36 and coming off two years of arm trouble, you could just say it was a slump. But he is 36, old enough to have his teammates call him "Moses," and the question you have to ask is this: Is it a slump, or did he use up his repaired arm in the first half of the season?

The answer is integral to the Orioles' plans for hanging with the Blue Jays, and should come in the next few weeks. There is a point at which prolonged pitching problems cease to be regarded as slumps. With a 1-7 record in the past 50 days, sinking in the rotation faster than Angola in the first half against the Dreamies, Sutcliffe is getting there.

One thing is certain: The Cubs don't look as foolish as they did in early June. They chose not to re-sign Sutcliffe because their medical people said his arm would not last a 35-start season. They were taking terrific heat when Sutcliffe was 9-4 and a potential All-Star. The heat is not so hot now that he is 10-11 through 24 starts -- and ranked among the league leaders in innings.

Let's review the facts. The Orioles signed Sutcliffe because they wanted someone to teach Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald about pitching, and because, after the arm apocalypse that was their 1991, they needed someone to chew up some innings.

The obvious gamble was the health of his arm, but he pitched so well last September that there wasn't much doubt he was OK. A less obvious gamble, but a more important one, was whether the Orioles were asking the right pitcher to chew up innings. Was it asking too much for Sutcliffe to make the jump from disabled list to staff strong-arm?

The question got lost in the euphoria of April and May, when Sutcliffe was such a revelation, throwing two shutouts and three complete games in the first month of the season alone. He was all the way back and stronger than ever, and what was Oates supposed to do? Yank him in the seventh when he had a three-hit shutout working? No manager is that strong.

"I did think that here was a 36-year-old arm getting a lot of innings," Oates said yesterday. "But in trying to think back on how many games when I might have let him pitch when it wasn't necessary, I'd have to say it was no more than a half-dozen innings at the most."

Sutcliffe started getting hit harder in May, when he won four games with a 6.33 ERA, and then came June and he fell off the earth. It is entirely possible that he will no longer be useful this year. He already is down to No. 4 in the rotation behind Mussina, McDonald and Arthur Rhodes, and you can bet he will be No. 5 if Alan Mills makes a successful move to the rotation.

But let's wait and see what happens. Sutcliffe is tough and wily, and the game runs in cycles. It is also entirely possible he will rediscover his arm strength and regain confidence in his curve and changeup. Far stranger things have happened, and a lot of other 36-year-old pitchers are doing fine. (Although not many coming back from two years off.)

"Sut will be fine, just fine," Oates said with a smile. "He knows how to work through this. If it was one of the kids, I might be worried."

Be advised: The manager is a hopeless romantic on the subject. He was a Cubs coach when Sutcliffe won 47 games and threw an astounding 695 innings from 1984 to 1987. Earlier this season, Oates' vision of Sutcliffe was of 1984. No more.

"We are going to have to be more careful from now on, maybe monitor [the number of] pitches [he throws] or have him skip a start," Oates said. "But he will be out there. I'm just not worried. What did we say in the spring? That we hoped for 15 wins and 200 innings from him? Well, he's close."

But the point is that he has been close to 15 wins for a while without getting any closer. And the issue is how much closer his tired arm will let him get.

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