Olson's struggling, but who can Oates turn to?

Ken Rosenthal

August 19, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

You're Johnny Oates. Your team is struggling. Your options are limited.

Can't worry about a starting rotation that keeps churning out quality innings.

Can't get too upset over a bullpen that has allowed 14 runs the past two games.

Can't even fool much with the lineup, for the hitters must produce in whatever order they bat.

Either this team is good enough to catch Toronto, or it's not. Barring a last-minute trade, any changes now will be minor.

Take Gregg Olson.

Oates plans to alter his role, but the shift is so subtle, it might never become apparent.

On one hand, Oates says Olson should no longer expect the "automatic call" in ninth-inning save opportunities. On the other hand, the manager states emphatically that Olson is still his closer.

There's no contradiction. The only change is that Oates might start using other relievers in certain save situations.

For example, if Todd Frohwirth pitches a 1-2-3 eighth, Oates might stick with him to start the ninth. Olson would enter the game only if Frohwirth got in trouble.

Of course, none of this came to pass in last night's 8-3 loss to Seattle. What's more, Oates said, "If Gregg goes out and has a couple of good outings, it will go right back to where it was."

At the moment, though, Olson is struggling, and Oates is trying to keep the Orioles from falling further behind Toronto.

The gap has increased from one to four games in the last seven days, largely because the Orioles have averaged only 2.8 runs per game in a 1-4 stretch.

BTC Olson, of course, blew a one-run lead Saturday night in Kansas City. The Orioles haven't won since, but that should change in the next two games.

Last night they lost to Dave Fleming, a 14-game winner and the likely AL Rookie of the Year. Now they face Mark Grant and Brian Fisher, both of whom began the season in the minor leagues.

Clearly their offense needs to revive, and the same goes for Olson. In both cases, Oates can do only so much. He's not about to bench Cal Ripken. And he's not about to quit on his closer.

Perspective, anyone?

A 20-game winner generally triumphs in less than 60 percent of his starts. A closer with the same success rate is considered a dismal failure.

Olson is 28-for-35 (80 percent) in save chances, but he has blown six of his last 15 after converting 19 of his first 20. Yes, the trend is disturbing. But it's also the nature of the beast.

Only one closer approaches perfection, and that's Dennis Eckersley. The rest fluctuate like Olson. Bobby Thigpen and Jeff Reardon each have seven blown saves. Rick Aguilera has six.

Ideally, a club employs two bullpen stoppers, and the Orioles no doubt would love hard-throwing Rochester left-hander Brad Pennington to develop into the perfect complement to Olson.

Yet, even that system can break down. Thigpen and Scott Radinsky have combined for 13 blown saves in Chicago. Is it any wonder the White Sox trail Oakland -- 49-0 when Eckersley pitches -- by nine games?

The save rule was created with good intentions, to recognize the late-inning performance of outstanding relievers.

The problem is, bullpen roles are now so specialized, managers get locked into their closers.

Thus, Oates is in a touchy spot with Olson, not wanting to destroy his top reliever's confidence, but not wanting to blow any more leads in the middle of a pennant race.

The fact is, he might need another late-inning reliever anyway, if Olson requires time off in September due to excessive work.

That wasn't the main reason he permitted right-hander Storm Davis to face Ken Griffey Jr. in the ninth inning last night, but it entered his thinking.

With the Orioles trailing 4-3, Oates didn't even order Mike Flanagan to warm up for possible matchups against the left-handed-hitting Griffey and Tino Martinez.

Griffey was 2-for-11 off Davis lifetime, and Flanagan has been inconsistent all season. As an afterthought, Oates also wanted to see how Davis closed the game.

He got his answer when Griffey hit a three-run homer.

His team is struggling. His options are limited.

All he can do is keep searching.

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