Sutcliffe's stumble is OK a year later

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 06, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

For two years, Johnny Oates' faith in Rick Sutcliffe has been unshakable. That won't change after what happened yesterday, but the simple fact is, the Orioles don't need Sutcliffe to be the ace of their pitching staff the way they did a year ago.

Indeed, Sutcliffe's rocky outing against the Texas Rangers yesterday would have been far more psychologically damaging had it occurred last Opening Day, when no one knew if his arm was sound or if any Orioles pitcher was capable of throwing 200 innings.

Now, Sutcliffe is one of four starters expected to reach that total, and the difference is immense. Obviously, Sutcliffe doesn't want to carry a 9.00 ERA the entire season. But if he finishes as the No. 4 starter on this staff, that's OK.

Oates chose Sutcliffe to pitch yesterday because the 36-year-old veteran was the best suited to handle the Opening Day hoopla, having done it eight times before. Sutcliffe threw a clinker, but so what? Mike Mussina pitches tomorrow, followed by Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes.

The pressure of the opener is enormous, especially in Baltimore, where an entire city rejoices over the return of the only game in town. Even a pitcher as experienced as Sutcliffe can overdose on his own adrenalin, and that's exactly what happened in the Rangers' five-run third inning.

The inning -- and the game -- turned on Sutcliffe's 3-0 fastball to Juan Gonzalez with two out, a runner on second and the score tied, 1-1. Ordinarily, Sutcliffe displays his veteran savvy in those situations, knowing a walk can't hurt him. But yesterday, he tried to throw the ball by Gonzalez.

The pitch resulted from his anger in allowing the Rangers' first run two hitters earlier, and Gonzalez crushed it over the left-center-field wall. Two batters later, Dean Palmer hit another two-run homer, and the 5-1 deficit proved too much for the Orioles to overcome.

Sutcliffe allowed five hits in the inning, as many as in his 2-0 shutout of Cleveland last Opening Day. If he had pitched as poorly a year ago, the questions would have started immediately, and the entire tone of the season might have been different.

Now, the Orioles can simply dismiss his performance, noting that it came against perhaps the league's best hitting team. No one in baseball will be surprised if Gonzalez hits 50 homers and Palmer has 30 this season. Heck, last season they combined for 69.

"I don't have any questions now over whether he can pitch," Oates said of Sutcliffe. "Last year, coming into the season, you wondered: 'The guy hasn't pitched in a year. Is he OK?' But I knew what he had inside. And that answered that question.

"What he did on and off the field went beyond our expectations. But this year, because we know more about our pitching staff, I don't think it's imperative that he pitch 240 innings. Coming into Opening Day last year, it was imperative, if only to give our bullpen a rest."

Last season, the Orioles opened with Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills at Triple-A Rochester and reliever Jim Poole on the disabled list. Reliever Mark Williamson went on the DL after only two appearances. This season, all of those pitchers made the Opening Day roster, and it's that much better a staff.

So, will Oates handle Sutcliffe any differently? Probably not. Maybe he could have removed Sutcliffe before Palmer hit his second homer of the game leading off the sixth. But Sutcliffe had retired seven of the previous eight hitters, so it didn't seem a pressing issue.

Oates, remember, gave Sutcliffe more leeway than his other starters last season, simply because of the experience factor. The one time he went overboard with his loyalty was in September, when he twice started Sutcliffe on three days' rest.

The results were disastrous, and Oates said yesterday he won't try the same thing again. Mussina, McDonald and Rhodes are a year older. Oates doesn't need Sutcliffe to be his workhorse. Mussina is primed to become the ace of the staff, and McDonald and Rhodes figure to pass Sutcliffe as well.

"I didn't feel a burden last year -- that's my job," Sutcliffe said. "I plan on pitching the same number of innings. I plan on pitching better. I'll approach it like I have every other year. But we've got a lot of ways to beat you -- pitching, defense . . . "

His voice trailed off. Sutcliffe was still upset about his pitches that missed by two feet, his sliders that nearly hit batters when he meant them to be low and outside. He surely will pitch better, but he need not feel any urgency. Mussina tomorrow. Then McDonald and Rhodes.

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