Jays add Cone, as O's concerns multiply Pitching staff's staying power is Oates' major worry

August 28, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

When the Orioles chased the Toronto Blue Jays down to the final weekend of the 1989 season, they did it with basically two starting pitchers. The battle cry that year was "Why Not?" but it easily could have been "Ballard and Milacki, then things get wacky."

A month ago, it appeared the Orioles had the makings of a solid four-man rotation. At the time, the only one struggling was

veteran right-hander Rick Sutcliffe. Rookie Arthur Rhodes was on a four-game winning streak. Ben McDonald had won three straight. Mike Mussina wasn't as dominant as he had been, but it was hardly cause for concern.

"With Mussina, McDonald, Rhodes and [part-time starter Alan] Mills, we could be set there for a long time," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates.

For the long haul, say the next decade, the Orioles do seem to be loaded with starting pitchers. But for the short run, say the final five weeks of this season, there seems to be a growing concern that the Orioles don't have enough pitching -- and their young pitchers enough stamina -- to overtake the Blue Jays, who yesterday acquired New York Mets ace David Cone.

For now, the Orioles must only be thinking about the next couple of weeks. A nine-game, 10-day road trip, which begins tonight at the Kingdome in Seattle, could give Oates an indication of what he might have to do in September. Despite ending the recently completed 4-5 homestand on an upbeat note, the Orioles were left with questions about their starters hanging out there like so many McDonald curveballs.

Among them:

* Will Sutcliffe continue to put a nightmarish July behind him and lead this unusually young staff down the stretch? The 36-year-old right-hander has won his past three decisions, including Tuesday night's masterful eight-inning, four-hit performance against the California Angels that came less than 72 hours after the death of his mother.

* Will Rhodes continue to have problems finding the plate, or will he return to being the dominant pitcher he was when called up from the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings last month? After winning his first four starts, the 22-year-old left-hander has lost four straight, going from being wildly talented to merely wild. He threw 116 pitches in 4 1/3 innings against the Angels on Monday night.

* Will Mc-Donald continue the club-record home-run pace -- he has served up 29 -- that has made him one of baseball's biggest enigmas? The 24-year-old right-hander has shown signs this season of living up to his No. 1 draft choice status, as well as being easy to read (and hit). McDonald will try to break a two-start drought and stretch the team's winning streak to three, tonight against the Mariners.

* Will Mussina continue to be one of baseball's best young pitchers, an All-Star in his first full season and, until recently, the ace of the staff? Or is the grind of throwing 91-mph fastballs with a 182-pound body finally catching up with the 23-year-old right-hander? Mussina is 2-2 in his past nine starts.

Those questions are gnawing at Oates, who doesn't want to finish second but doesn't want to be second-guessed later about how he used his starters down the stretch. It is a delicate balance: trying to win a pennant without losing a team's future. Oates has a plan, but admits it could change as the season winds down.

"With young kids, you get tempted to see what they can do, but you don't want to run them out there on three days' rest," said Oates, who doesn't need a fifth starter until Tuesday and then only twice more the rest of the year. "I don't think I can take that chance. There's too much at stake with guys like McDonald, Mussina and Rhodes."

It was only three years ago that Jeff Ballard, then 26, and Bob Milacki, then 25, did it consistently over the last six weeks for the Orioles. Beginning Aug. 15 that year, starters went 26 times on three day's rest. Neither Ballard nor Milacki has been the same since.

The Orioles released Ballard, who's now with the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds. Milacki, after struggling with the Orioles most of the first half of the season, is with Rochester.

Oates, who was the Orioles' first-base coach that year, said he doesn't think the situations are comparable. Nobody on the 1989 staff had Sutcliffe's experience, or resolve. Nobody on this year's staff has Ballard's resilience and, except maybe for Rhodes, Milacki's bullish strength.

Asked if the approach to the way he uses his starters this year has changed from April to August, Oates said, "It's no different than at any other time. We monitor the pitches a lot. I don't want anybody getting hurt. I really don't worry about Sutcliffe. He's been through this before. But guys like Mussina and McDonald can get caught up in the excitement. They might try to pitch an inning too much. You have to watch them."

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