Sutcliffe is needed, and so is his arm

KEN ROSENTHAL

July 23, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

MINNEAPOLIS -- Rick Sutcliffe was handed a two-run lead in the top of the first inning last night at the Metrodome. It was a nifty start to a long weekend series in the Orioles' personal horror house.

By the end of the first, the Twins were up a run. By the end of the third, they were up three. By the end of the fourth, they were up four and on their way to an 8-4 win that once again forced the Orioles to a consider a question they're trying not to think about:

Are they going to have to do something with Sutcliffe? Give someone else his spot in the rotation?

Arthur Rhodes is starting to throw bullets at Rochester. The club is openly investigating trades for starters to provide ballast for a pennant drive. Sutcliffe, struggling mightily as Ben McDonald, Jamie Moyer and Fernando Valenzuela soar, certainly would be the obvious candidate to lose his spot.

But it's not going to happen.

Not unless Sutcliffe gets hit so hard for so long that manager Johnny Oates has absolutely no choice.

Don't count on it.

If there is one player Oates doesn't want to touch, it's Sutcliffe. Tampering with Sutcliffe is tampering with the ballclub's karma. Sutcliffe is the Orioles' leader. He is the bulk in their big shoulders. He encourages. Cajoles. Keeps the dugout alive. Passes on old tricks to young heads. "You have to be in uniform to understand his importance to us," Oates said.

He also has to pitch, of course. That's the problem these days. Sutcliffe is 0-4 in his past five starts. His ERA is an SAT score. He isn't fooling anyone.

But here's the deal: If you take him out of the rotation now, or soon, you run the risk of losing him for the season. Sutcliffe is the sweetest guy in the world away from the ballpark, but in uniform he's all macho, an ace strutter. Take away his job and maybe you take away his aura, his confidence. That would be a bad move.

The Orioles are in a pennant race, as you may have heard. A tight, tense September looms. And here's a call you can bank on: When it's the middle of September and the Orioles desperately need a big game from a starter, they're going to want Sutcliffe on the mound.

More than Moyer. More than Fernando. More than any other starter, even Mike Mussina.

Pennant-drive games call for old, wise heads. For nerveless arms. For moxie more than miles per hour.

For warriors.

That's Sutcliffe. He's the Orioles' only true warrior.

Obviously, he is no longer the pitcher who won 97 games in seven years during the mid-1980s. But he's the perfect pennant-drive pitcher if ever there was one.

If the Orioles gave away his job now and lost him for the season, they would be warrior-less in September. And very sorry.

Besides, remember the cautionary tale of a year ago. Sutcliffe went through a slump at almost the same time in the season. His July record was 0-5. There was talk that his fastball just wasn't fast enough anymore, that it was just, you know, time. But Sutcliffe came out of it. With a vengeance.

As the Orioles chased Toronto, he went 5-0 in August. Suddenly, he was brilliant, the starter Oates wanted out there every night. Only when the team faded in September did Sutcliffe fade, too.

Now, it's possible that he doesn't have another such recovery in his arm. He is 37. He threw his first pro pitch during the Watergate summer. He has completed some 2,500 major-league innings. Even on his good days now, he has base runners all over the place. Hey, maybe it's just, you know, time. If so, let's stand and applaud.

But then again, maybe he's just bluffing, as he was a year ago. Maybe he's just experiencing the dead-arm days that every pitcher experiences every season. The Orioles, and Bird-lovers everywhere, should hope so.

This much is certain: Oates will give Sutcliffe every chance. More chances than he would give any other pitcher. Only when everyone else is screaming, when it is painfully obvious, would the manager reluctantly make this change. Oates loves what Sutcliffe brings to the table. What manager wouldn't?

As with all things baseball, we'll just have to see what happens.

"I'm as sick of it as you guys are of writing about it," a disconsolate Sutcliffe said, sitting at his locker. "What am I supposed to do, wait until August 1st rolls around?"

He shook his head. "No one in here wants to win this thing more than I do," he said. "It makes me sick."

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