Olson's absence ticking time bomb

JOHN EISENBERG

September 10, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

With the Orioles winning and winning, and the bullpen raging night after night, there is the temptation to dismiss Gregg Olson's elbow injury as irrelevant to the pennant race. The bullpen-by-committee has performed as flawlessly as Olson ever could, with four saves, four wins and but one blown save since Olson went down a month ago.

Who needs him, right?

Well, the Orioles do.

Wait a minute. Let's put it this way: The Orioles probably do.

It's not a certainty. There is always the possibility that Alan Mills and Jim Poole will be able to handle the save situations for the rest of the year, as they have for the past month, and Olson's absence will indeed be irrelevant.

In fact, the club better hope Mills and Poole are up to it, seeing as there's no timetable for Olson's return, meaning he might not throw another pitch in '93.

But please understand something: The club is not better off without Olson. Don't be ridiculous.

Maybe it's true that he hasn't been missed. But the real truth is that he hasn't been needed. Not much, anyway.

The Orioles have been lucky on this score. Closer-less, they have streaked within reach of the Blue Jays and Yankees without playing many games requiring a top closer. Only three times in the 29 games since Olson's injury has a reliever had to protect a one-run lead in the last inning, the true test of a closer.

The substitutes (Mills twice, Poole once) are 3-for-3, but the point is that it's a minuscule sampling bearing no resemblance to the ** relentless pressure a closer must stare down in September.

If such luck continues to hold, then yes, maybe the club won't need Olson. But, in a game in which most things even out, the overwhelming likelihood is that the Orioles won't escape this three-headed pennant race, or the postseason (yeah, let's go ahead and say it), without playing a handful of those crazy, nerve-racking games demanding a top closer.

At such points, more than likely, would Olson's absence become extremely relevant.

For five years now, Olson's presence on the mound has represented better than a four-in-five chance that the game will be saved. He catches a lot of heat around here -- too much when he slumps -- but his ratio is among the best in the game.

There are a lot of pretend closers who pad their stats with easy saves, but only a few who consistently handle the horrifying, impossible situations they inherit 10 or 15 times a year. Olson is one of the few with the stuff and temperament to handle them. You can look it up.

The point is that there are reasons why Olson, not Poole or Mills, has been the closer all along. Don't forget: Before his injury, Olson was pitching more effectively than he had at any time since 1990.

If his torn muscle were to heal sufficiently for him to return to the bullpen, the Orioles would have the ideal arrangement out there: Mills and Poole setting up for Olson, with Mark Williamson and Todd Frohwirth in long relief. Without Olson it's a shallower, iffier arrangement. Frohwirth and Williamson have to set up, and neither has pitched consistently this year. And while Poole and Mills have been brilliant, they're new to the closing gig and yet to prove they can handle it.

Of course, we're only talking about three more weeks, and in baseball anything can happen for three weeks. (See: Traber, Jim, 1986.) The Red Sox reached the '86 World Series on the arm of an up-from-nowhere closer named Calvin Schiraldi.

But it was ultimately symbolic that Schiraldi was on the mound when the Sox crashed in the 10th inning of Game 6. The lesson was that, the way baseball is played today, you just can't cut corners on your closer. If you do, you'll lose in the end.

Check out each of the recent Series winners. The A's had Eck. The Reds had the Nasty Boys. The Twins had Rick Aguilera. The Blue Jays had Duane Ward and Tom Henke.

You gotta have it.

In the AL East this year, the Jays have Ward, who blew a big game the other night but remains one of the best. The Yankees lost their main man when Steve Farr was injured, but they traded for Lee Smith, who has lost steam on his fastball but remains a solid practitioner of the art.

Olson's return would enable the Orioles to match the Jays and Yankees, and if you think such comparisons don't matter, ask the Braves, whose lack of a closer might have cost them the past two Series.

If Olson can't go, Mills and Poole will inherit an enormous burden. No one is worrying right now with everything else coming together so neatly, but it will come up before the season ends. Count on it.

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