Olson was too good for own good in '89

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 13, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Doug Strange, and now Lee Tinsley. Gregg Olson used to abuse such no-names. Strange never would have hit a game-winning homer off him in 1989. Tinsley never would have ignited a game-tying rally.

What's wrong with Olson? The same question was asked last season after he blew his first save opportunity in Toronto. Olson proceeded to convert 19 straight chances, the longest streak of his career.

The same thing could happen again, the way Olson and pitching coach Dick Bosman are talking. But to the average fan, Olson is the reason the Orioles started 1-5 instead of 3-3. It's never that simple.

The truth is, there's only one thing wrong with Olson: He spoiled everyone as a rookie, and it will haunt him the rest of his career. The average major-leaguer shows a steady pattern of growth. Olson was so good, so young, he left himself little room to improve.

Here's a closer who pitched 16 games in the minors, then converted 41 of his first 47 save opportunities with the Orioles. It was a success rate he could not possibly sustain. Dennis Eckersley converts 89 percent of his chances. Olson was cruising along at 87 percent.

A decline was inevitable, and, at age 26, Olson still is searching for a happy medium. Surely, he's not the closer he was in those heady days of '89. But he's not this fading phenom, either.

"There's a lot of quality there," Bosman said yesterday from Texas. "He missed on a couple of pitches and they cost us, that's all. I'd be concerned if his velocity wasn't up, or if the sharpness on his breaking ball wasn't there. But he has thrown a whole bunch of good pitches."

Alas, he didn't throw them to Strange or Tinsley. Strange hit a 1-0 sinking fastball for the first homer by a left-handed hitter off Olson in nearly two years. Tinsley bounced a 3-2 fastball through the middle for his first major-league hit.

The common denominator? Olson trailed in both counts. Strange was looking for a fastball with one out, a man on second and the score tied. Tinsley wanted only to reach base leading off an inning, and Olson went to the obligatory 2-0.

That's what he was kicking himself over yesterday -- not the two-strike, two-out double by Tino Martinez that cost him his second save. "If I get him out, the game's over," Olson said of Tinsley. "There's not even a problem."

But he threw four straight fastballs after falling behind Tinsley, and the result was almost predictable. According to the 1993 Stats Player Profiles, opponents batted .349 when ahead of Olson in the count last season, .108 when behind.

lTC That's an unusually wide disparity, and the difference in Olson's career numbers (.324-.152) is nearly as great. Never mind that Tinsley's artificial-turf single might have been an out at Camden Yards. Olson yielded the advantage.

Of course, Olson got ahead of Martinez 1-2, to no avail. Martinez previously was 0-for-3 off Olson with three strikeouts. Olson threw him a good curve, but not good enough. "If it was in the dirt," he said, "I probably would have struck him out."

Such are the tiny margins that separate victory from defeat, the great closers from the merely good. Olson has fallen into the latter category, ranking ninth in the American League in save percentage each of the past two seasons. But you don't quit on a pitcher who has accomplished so much at 26.

Just before Martinez's hit, Olson struck out Jay Buhner with a vicious curveball. He earned his first save with a 12-pitch inning Saturday night. We're not talking about Bobby Thigpen here.

Still, Olson is at a crossroads. At Bosman's suggestion, he started throwing his sinking fastball last season, and is now experimenting with a slider. The idea is to show hitters a different look. But it will all backfire if he can't control his bread-and-butter pitches.

That doesn't appear to be the case -- Olson seems to have his good curveball, and he described his fastball Sunday as "tremendous." In all likelihood, he will record his fourth straight 30-save season. But he isn't going to attain perfection, the unfair standard set by Eckersley.

"The game's changed," Olson said. "It used to be that people would bring in their closer, and the game was over. Now, everyone knows we're human. They're going after us more.

"They'll keep a pinch hitter around, find people who can hit a certain guy. Everyone used to say it was an arms race until the eighth inning. Now, they're trying to get the closer, too."

No one should complain if opponents get to Olson occasionally. Only if he keeps getting beat by Doug Strange and Lee Tinsley will there be true cause for concern.

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