Amid Blue Jays' rubble, a solid Milacki emerges

September 25, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

On the surface, Bob Milacki's contribution to the fading

Orioles last night at Camden Yards seemed of little consequence. Six-plus innings of relief in the middle of an 8-2 blowout loss to the first-place Toronto Blue Jays.

But for the 28-year-old right-hander, it was another step in the resurrection of his once blossoming big-league career.

"The start I made in Oakland was very important for the club," Milacki said, alluding to an eight-inning, one-run, four-hit performance Sept. 1 that kept the Orioles in the heat of the now almost forgotten pennant race. "In the type of role I'm in, I'm trying to pitch as well as I can."

What Milacki is trying to do is make people believe, either in Baltimore or elsewhere, that he can be an effective starting pitcher. Though he has pitched well in two of three appearances since being recalled from Rochester for that start against Oakland, he hasn't pitched often.

In fact, when he replaced shell-shocked Ben McDonald last night in the second inning of a soon-to-be 7-0 game, Milacki hadn't pitched in 15 days. His last appearance hadn't renewed anybody's faith: two ineffective innings in the middle of a blowout loss to the Yankees.

"Bob Milacki threw the ball well [last night]," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said, trying to come up with any positives on a night in which they were hard to find for his third-place team. "He threw 100 pitches. He saved our bullpen for a few games."

Except for a two-run double by Dave Winfield immediately after he came into the game, and a wild pitch that brought in Toronto's final run in the fourth, Milacki was effective. He would -- like to think that last night's performance earned him another chance, but this has been a season of uncertainty for Milacki.

Once considered among the organization's top pitching prospects, Milacki went from being a 14-game winner and a key member of the staff as a rookie during the Orioles' pennant chase in 1989 to a 6-foot-4, 232-pound question mark the past three years.

"Bob worked very hard to get to the big leagues," assistant general manager Doug Melvin said as he watched Milacki from the press box last night. "He really wasn't that highly thought of when he was in the lower minor leagues, but he worked to get where he did."

Things began to unravel for Milacki early in the 1990 season. After being named the team's Opening Day starter, Milacki won only once in his first 10 starts. Then, after back-to-back wins, he won only once in 11 starts, was sidelined a month with a strained shoulder and finished the season 5-8.

Last year, he began the season in the minor leagues. After going 3-0 at Hagerstown, Milacki was called up in late April. He was erratic for most of the season, but he did finish with a team-high 10 wins and was part of a four-pitcher no-hitter against Oakland. After a couple of decent starts earlier this year, Milacki was hit hard in six straight appearances and was sent to Rochester on July 15.

"He needed to go down and get some confidence," Melvin said. "He had to work on his repertoire of pitches and work on regaining confidence in his fastball to make his off-speed pitches more effective."

By the time Milacki was demoted, he was out of sync both mentally and physically. His confidence was shot, and his mechanics were messed up. There were those who wondered && whether his arm was affected from those 243 innings in 1989.

Milacki never had doubts that he would be back.

"I don't think it was rebuilding confidence," Milacki said of his six- week stay in Rochester, when he pitched complete-game victories in three of his first four starts and went 7-1 overall. "It was more a matter of working on my breaking ball, and getting things ironed out."

Milacki seemed to be on the road back when he beat Oakland in the middle of the team's seven-game West Coast winning streak. But the day Milacki last started was also the day left-hander Craig Lefferts arrived in a trade from San Diego.

Going to the bullpen wasn't as difficult as going to the minors, but it was hard enough.

"It's never easy to swallow," Milacki said. "But at least I can help the team from there. Of course, I want to pitch as much as I can. When they made the trade, I knew they had to pitch the guy they traded for. There have been times when I thought they could have used me, so I have to make the best of it when I do get in like I did tonight."

Statistically, last night's game was only meaningful to Winfield and the Blue Jays. Winfield had a big night with his 26th home run (432 lifetime) and four RBI (103 this season), making him the first 40-year-old in major-league history to knock in 100 in a season. The Blue Jays reduced their magic number to six.

LTC But the game was significant for Milacki. It was a showcase for next season, wherever he might be. Because Milacki undoubtedly will be left unprotected for expansion, where he might end up next season is anybody's guess. Milacki isn't even hazarding one.

"I hope I've shown I can pitch at this level," he said. "I think I've done that."

ORIOLES TONIGHT

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Time: 7:35

Red Sox starter: Frank Viola (12-12, 3.64)

Orioles starter: Craig Lefferts (0-2, 4.74)

TV: Home Team Sports

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)

Tickets: Sold out except for 275 standing-room tickets, which go on sale when the gates open.

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