Bullpen collapse was matter of time, little of it on mound

Ken Rosenthal

September 09, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

"Hit the mitt. Miss the bat."

It got so bad, Johnny Oates was reduced to offering that sage piece of advice to Mark Williamson, his sixth pitcher of the game.

A genius, that Oates.

Except Williamson, pitching for the first time at Oriole Park, needed further instruction.

"Which way," he asked, "is home plate?"

Gallows humor, but the only kind available on a night when New York's Danny Tartabull finished with nine RBI, matching Cal Ripken's total for the last month.

The Orioles' 16-4 loss to the Yankees was costly, for it dropped them 2 1/2 games behind Toronto. But under the circumstances, it was predictable, perhaps even inevitable.

Oates conceded afterward that rookie left-hander Arthur Rhodes is too inexperienced to continue as a spot starter down the stretch. And the sudden bullpen collapse can be attributed to the recent inactivity of several relievers.

The club's 2.01 ERA in the previous nine games was something to behold, but the starters pitched so many innings, the only relievers who got regular work were Alan Mills, Todd Frohwirth and Gregg Olson.

Last night, Storm Davis pitched for the first time in 16 days, Mike Flanagan for the first time in 20, Williamson for the first time in nearly five months and Jim Poole for the first time all season.

The parade of tortured relievers included everyone but public relations director Rick Vaughn, the former George Mason flame-thrower who threw a no-hitter in his glory days as a collegian.

It got so bad, Oates emptied his bench in the eighth, inserting Steve Scarsone at shortstop, Mark Parent at catcher and Luis Mercedes in center field. The beleaguered Flanagan proceeded to allow five runs, his ERA increasing from 7.55 to 8.81.

The 16 runs were the most allowed by the Orioles since June of 1989, the 20 hits the most since June of '88. Ugly numbers for a contending team, but strange as it sounds, the logical fallout from the club's recent seven-game winning streak.

"I'll trade one game for seven," Oates explained. "I'm not worried about getting everyone [in the bullpen] work. If the starters are getting me into the seventh and eighth innings, I'll skip all the way home."

But Rhodes, sliding into the rotation for the first time in 10 days, couldn't escape the third. He began the inning by walking the Yankees' No. 9 hitter, Pat Kelly. Then he failed to retire Bernie Williams and Randy Velarde, both of whom tried to bunt.

Williams hit a single and Velarde a two-run double to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead. Rhodes faced one more batter, retiring the left-handed-hitting Don Mattingly. Oates then summoned Davis to face Tartabull.

A quick hook? Absolutely. But Oates didn't want the game to get out of control. This wasn't veteran Rick Sutcliffe on the mound. This was a 22-year-old kid making only his 19th major-league start.

Rhodes threw a five-hit shutout against the Yankees on July 29, and that's why Oates chose him to start over Bob Milacki. Sound reasoning, but Milacki pitched in a pennant race in '89, and he'll almost certainly become the fifth starter now.

The point was moot last night, for Milacki was no better than Rhodes, allowing four runs in two innings of relief. Indeed, every move by Oates went sour -- especially the call to Davis, a decision that made absolute sense.

Davis didn't pitch the entire West Coast trip, in part because of a muscle problem in his side that prevented him from warming up properly in Oakland. He badly needed work, and the third inning seemed the perfect spot.

Oates couldn't use Mills, who pitched three innings the previous night. He didn't want to waste Frohwirth so early in the game. And he didn't want a left-hander facing Tartabull, one of seven right-handed hitters in the Yankees' lineup.

So, it was Davis or Milacki, and Davis warms up faster. Before his layoff, he had been one of the club's most effective relievers, allowing only eight of 46 inherited runners to score, the sixth-best ratio in the AL.

As Oates said, "If I don't bring him in there, he's never going to pitch. He'll never get over that hump." Problem was, Davis allowed the first of Tartabull's two homers, a two-run, opposite-field shot.

The Orioles pulled within 5-3 on a two-run homer by Joe Orsulak, but Davis allowed another run in the fourth and a double to start the Yankees' three-run fifth, and that was that.

It got so bad, the few remaining fans in the eighth inning booed third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr. for failing to send home Chito Martinez with the Orioles trailing by 12 runs -- and Ripken yelled back.

It got so bad, Diamondvision reported incorrectly that Scarsone was making his major-league debut as he stepped to the plate in the ninth, prompting a standing ovation for a player who otherwise would have gone unnoticed.

Scarsone played earlier this season for Philadelphia.

Let's just start over.

Hit the mitt. Miss the bat.

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