Put time on side of Rhodes' fastball

JOHN EISENBERG

September 08, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

In a perfect world, or at least one in which their front office was a tad bolder, the Orioles would have had a more dependable starter ready last night for the moment when they were two games out and closing faster than a bullet train.

Instead, they tossed Arthur Rhodes and his 11 career wins into the spit and fire of the division race.

They were hoping for the good Arthur Rhodes, the one who dazzled the Tigers last month -- and the Yankees and Twins a year ago -- with that left-handed 94-mph fastball.

They were hoping they didn't get the bad Arthur Rhodes, the one with the Halloween mask of an ERA.

For those who don't know, that's the way the Orioles have to play it with Rhodes these days. Every pitcher in the bigs has good and bad nights, but it is particularly true of Rhodes at age 23 that each of his starts is an adventure. He might pitch a shutout. He might walk six and be gone by the third inning.

He might even threaten to throw a no-hitter, as he did last night, limiting the Mariners to two walks through the first two outs of the seventh inning . . .

. . . before allowing two home runs that gave the Mariners a 3-2 win, breaking the Orioles' eight-game winning streak.

The juxtaposition of good and bad pretty much summed up Rhodes' career with the Orioles thus far, and while the final result -- a loss -- cost the club a chance to gain a game on the Blue Jays, Rhodes' performance only reinforced why it's absolutely the right thing to have him out there in this suddenly serious September.

The Orioles have this blueprint for the rest of the decade, see, and Rhodes figures prominently in it. Along with Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, he is part of the cornerstone, part of the starting rotation expected to carry the club.

Right now, it might seem that such expectations are too high for Rhodes; he has been around for most of the past two years and has been nothing if not erratic, offering little evidence that he'll turn into the consistent performer envisioned.

But the fact is that it's just too soon, far too soon, to make any

pronouncements. The fact is that Rhodes is very much a work in progress, still learning the most basic aspects of his craft.

"You can't learn to pitch reading the scouting reports," Oates said. "You can't learn to pitch sitting on the bench talking to Sutcliffe, as much as that helps. The only way to learn is to get out there and do it. And that's something Arthur is a little behind on."

You can look it up. Various injuries have cost Rhodes dozens of innings, maybe hundreds, since he signed with the club in 1988. He threw only 90 innings in his first two seasons in the minors and did not throw more than 153 in any season until last year in Baltimore and Rochester.

At this point, Rhodes had thrown only slightly more than 600 innings as a pro -- about as many as Ben McDonald has thrown in the major leagues alone. Behind? he's way behind.

The result is that Rhodes is still basically a fastball pitcher. He has a curveball, but doesn't throw it consistently for strikes. He has a changeup, but it isn't polished. He is still relying on his fastball, and that just isn't enough in the bigs.

As things stand now, Rhodes is almost exactly two years behind McDonald. He is 2 years younger. He has almost exactly two fewer years of major-league innings. And where was McDonald two years ago? Finishing up an injury-marred 6-8 season, with a 4.84 ERA. Sound familiar? It should. It's similar to where Rhodes should wind up in 1993.

Granted, that McDonald has developed into a top pitcher in two years doesn't guarantee that Rhodes will do the same by 1995. Every pitcher operates on a different timetable.

Still, the tale is a cautionary one. Back when the Orioles were thinking about trading Rhodes for Fred McGriff, a lot of people around town said thumbs-up. But you have to be patient with young pitchers, particularly lefties who throw hard.

"Pitchers with Arthur's talent simply do not come along very often," pitching coach Dick Bosman said. "You have to nurture that talent, which takes time. It took Ben three years to be able to think on his feet and know how to use his repertoire."

The power of strong, young pitching is plainly evident in the Orioles' latest run at the division lead. Neither the Blue Jays nor the Yankees have the arms to match Mussina and McDonald. Pitching brought the Orioles this close, and pitching will decide what happens.

In years to come, the Orioles hope Rhodes will be one of the pitchers on whom they're relying. Give him time.

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