Keeping Rhodes good deal for O's

KEN ROSENTHAL

August 10, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

DETROIT -- Now you know why the Orioles didn't trade Arthur Rhodes for Rickey Henderson. Before last night, only five left-handed starters had beaten the Detroit Tigers this season. Rhodes makes six, and suddenly the Orioles' starting rotation looks formidable again.

Never mind that Jamie Moyer and Fernando Valenzuela have combined for an 11.57 ERA in their past five starts. The Orioles won't need to add another pitcher if Mike Mussina is healthy for the final six weeks, and if Rhodes keeps doing his best imitation of Vida Blue.

Go figure: Just five days after walking six of his first eight batters in his return from the disabled list, Rhodes fought off a fifth-inning leg cramp to come within three outs of pitching the first complete-game shutout against the Tigers since last Aug. 26.

The Orioles' 4-1 victory at Tiger Stadium was perhaps the most encouraging of this eight-game winning streak, and all because of Rhodes. Before the game, manager Johnny Oates issued his annual Arthur Challenge, telling Rhodes to throw strikes or else. Once again, he got the desired results.

Last Aug. 29, Rhodes held Seattle scoreless for 7 2/3 innings. Last night, he took a three-hit shutout into the ninth. "I told Boz [pitching coach Dick Bosman], 'Do we use it every night or just once in a while?' " Oates said, smiling. "He said, 'Once in a while. He's getting the idea.' "

Getting the idea? Left-handed starters entered the game with a 5.62 ERA against the slugging Tigers, but Rhodes lowered that number significantly, striking out eight and walking three before being replaced by Alan Mills after a leadoff walk to Travis Fryman in the ninth.

Detroit, the highest scoring team in the league, didn't advance a runner to third base until after Rhodes threw the last of his 134 pitches. Cecil Fielder, the most feared right-handed slugger on the planet, didn't clear the infield, much less the fences, against the 23-year-old left-hander.

It was only one game, but Rhodes had everything working. Oates said he couldn't have thrown a pitch better than the slider he used to strike out Tony Phillips in the eighth -- and that was after 125 pitches. "He only threw me one changeup," Phillips said, "and I think that was over 90."

Mark Langston, Jimmy Key, Jim Abbott and Kenny Rogers -- those were the only other left-handed starters to beat the Tigers this season (Abbott did it twice). That's a fairly select group, but virtually every major-league team projects Rhodes in that company.

"Why does everyone else want him?" Oates asked before the game. "Every time we talk trade, Rhodes is one of the first names to come up. But you don't go out and pick a young left-hander who throws 94 [mph] off a tree. That's a rare species."

Assistant general manager Frank Robinson said the idea of trading Rhodes "wasn't tempting. It was flattering that his name came up. But it wasn't difficult for us to say no. We have very strong feelings about him, always did. We think he's going to be an outstanding pitcher in this league for a long time."

In many ways, Rhodes is simply another Ben McDonald, long on talent, short on experience. He actually was drafted a year before McDonald (1988), but out of high school, not college. Thus, McDonald has thrown almost as many innings in the majors (624 2/3 ) as Rhodes has in his entire six-year career (647).

The way Rick Sutcliffe sees it, the Orioles have got "a nice big chunk of gold. They've just got to finish it up." As with McDonald, the process can be exasperating. But club officials raved about Rhodes' newfound maturity in spring training, when it appeared he was on the verge of becoming a star.

Of course, the entire picture changed when Rhodes missed nearly three months after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. No one was certain if he'd revert to the scared kid who couldn't throw a strike in 1991, or display the same dominance and poise he did in the pennant race of '92.

"There's no crystal ball," Bosman said. "I wish I knew when the light was going to go on. I know this -- if you keep saying the same things and going through the same things, sooner or later it's going to work. I've been through it with enough guys. I'm confident we'll eventually get there."

Bosman worked with Rhodes in the bullpen Friday, and persuaded him to shift his position on the rubber to give him a better angle toward home plate. "I felt like a mess in my last outing," Rhodes said. "That helped out a whole lot."

Good thing he never left.

Suddenly, he's back.

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