Valenzuela bid speeds ahead Ex-Dodger picks up velocity, gives Orioles 3 scoreless innings

March 16, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In their prime, Fernando Valenzuela and Bert Blyleven were considered franchise pitchers. One was C dazzling, left-handed trickster, the other an overpowering right-hander with a wicked curveball.

Both took another step on the comeback trail yesterday, but only one went forward.

Valenzuela, a former Los Angeles Dodger trying to return with a team about as far removed from his original as possible, pitched three more scoreless innings for the Orioles. Blyleven, whose career has made a circuit through both leagues, is trying to make it back where he started, with the Minnesota Twins.

The right-hander didn't fare as well, giving up five second-inning runs to take the loss, as the Orioles rolled to their fifth straight victory by beating the Twins, 6-3.

The runs were the first allowed in three spring training appearances by Blyleven, who turns 42 next month. He seemed unfazed by his performance, which was hampered by a swirling wind that affected some of the hits he allowed.

"I think I can compete at this level," said Blyleven. "I want to see if I can come back [from rotator cuff surgery]. If I can, great. If I can't, great."

Meanwhile, Valenzuela, 10 years younger, stretched his scoreless innings streak to five in the two games he has pitched for the Orioles. Is it a mirage, or an indication of things to come?

Nobody's making any predictions, but Orioles manager Johnny Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman were even more impressed than they were after Valenzuela's first outing against the Toronto Blue Jays Thursday night.

"I think he threw the ball better than he did the other night," said Oates. "His velocity was better this time."

Bosman, like Oates, said he didn't know what to expect when the Orioles invited Valenzuela to camp. "All I can go on is what I see," said Bosman. "If he builds on that, it's an improvement. He had better velocity, and he threw a couple of good curveballs."

Valenzuela threw 40 pitches, compared with the 39 it took him to get through two innings against the Blue Jays last week. That, he said, is an indication of what is most important.

"My velocity was better, but I don't think that's that important," he said, "but if I have location, that's the main thing. I'm not going to have good stuff every time I go to the mound, but I look to have command of all my pitches.

"Everything was a lot better," said Valenzuela, "except my screwball stayed up a little. I feel so good that I might be trying to overthrow, and when you do that, the ball just spins. But I feel confident that I can throw all of my pitches."

Valenzuela gave up a single to the first batter he faced, Chip Hale, but then retired eight of the last nine hitters he faced. He walked one and didn't have a strikeout.

"To me, he looked like a guy on his way back who could help a team," said ex-Oriole Terry Crowley, the hitting coach for the Twins. "He was very poised, and he showed me a good curve, something I didn't know he had."

Valenzuela made an aborted comeback attempt with the California Angels in 1991, after being released by the Dodgers that spring. His last game for the Dodgers was an ugly outing against the Orioles that triggered his release a few days later.

That was the last time Oates had seen Valenzuela before he came into the Orioles camp. "In your mind, you have visions of what you saw the last time," said Oates.

"But when he walked in here, he had a fresh start. Guys do come back. Sometimes, it takes awhile to get your arm strength back.

"All I remember about the last time [when he saw Valenzuela against the Orioles two years ago] is that the wind was blowing out and there were a lot of home runs. I can tell you there's no comparison to the way he threw then and the way he's throwing now.

"Maybe lightning will strike twice -- we got Sut [Rick Sutcliffe] last year, maybe this year it will be Fernando. Maybe . . . maybe . . . maybe. We'll see what happens," said Oates.

Valenzuela, who is signed to a Triple-A contract, is aware that there is a lot of competition for the No. 5 spot in the Orioles' starting rotation.

"Everybody is doing good," he said, "but I don't feel like I'm competing with anybody. I'm just trying to be part of the team."

He wouldn't discuss any contingency plans in case he gets squeezed out of a spot on the major-league roster. "I don't want to mention that right now," said Valenzuela.

"I don't want to talk about something that hasn't happened yet -- and I hope won't happen. I can tell you that I'm throwing a lot better than the last time [comeback attempt with the Angels]. I'm more confident and I have better stuff.

"This time, if I can be with the team for four weeks, I think I can do the job," said Valenzuela.

So far, at least, he has done nothing to dispel that possibility. If he continues to throw as he has, Valenzuela is going to leave Oates with a difficult decision.

"These guys [candidates for the fifth starting spot] don't want to make my job any easier -- and that's just the way I like it," said Oates.

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