In the end, Sutcliffe gives O's his all

KEN ROSENTHAL

September 22, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CLEVELAND -- Johnny Oates said Rick Sutcliffe was so bubbly Monday, "I told him to shut up." As usual, the manager couldn't hide his affection for the veteran right-hander. "He hated the bullpen, hated it," Oates said, smiling. "But now he's chirping. He's happy."

Sutcliffe couldn't wait for last night's start against Cleveland, his first competitive appearance since Aug. 22. Alas, he could have thrown a shutout and it wouldn't have mattered. The Orioles are preparing to bid their aging warrior farewell.

Oh, Sutcliffe might be back as a non-roster player next spring, but only as a courtesy if he doesn't sign with another team. The Orioles owe him that much. But they're not about to commit any further to a 37-year-old pitcher with a 5.72 ERA.

Ever the gamer, the Sutcliffe took the mound last night less than a month after undergoing knee surgery. The results were predictable -- three runs in 3 1/3 innings -- but they nearly were forgotten when the Orioles blew another three-run lead, then rallied for a 7-6 victory.

"I wouldn't have been surprised if he hadn't gotten out of the first TC inning," Oates said. "He hadn't faced a hitter in a month. That's the hesitation I have with [Gregg] Olson right now. There's a possibility he might go out there and not even be able to hit the backstop."

Sutcliffe had no such difficulties, but this still looks like the end. The Orioles never imagined he'd pitch nearly 400 innings over two seasons, just as they never imagined Fernando Valenzuela would work 170 innings this year. Valenzuela also could return as a non-roster player, but frankly, he's not part of the 1994 equation, either.

The Orioles need to add at least one starting pitcher this off-season, knowing their farm system isn't ready with replacements. Arthur Rhodes and reliever Brad Pennington remain the top pitching prospects, but the two left-handers are still so raw that club officials want both to play winter ball.

Right-hander Mike Oquist (six scoreless innings) looks like the best of the three Rochester call-ups, but if he cracks the 1994 staff, it probably will be in long relief. The same goes for left-hander John O'Donoghue, who pitched for the first time in 16 days last night, and was effective for three innings.

Indeed, the Orioles can't match pitching prospects with the Boston Red Sox (Aaron Sele, Nate Minchey) or the New York Yankees (Sterling Hitchcock, Mark Hutton, Domingo Jean). Their top pitcher at Triple-A next season likely will be left-hander Rick Krivda, who is 34-12 in his minor-league career but throws only 81-82 mph.

The depth is at Single-A, where the Frederick rotation this season had five prospects: Jimmy Haynes, Scott Klingenbeck, Rick Forney, Vaughn Eshelman and Brian Sackinsky. They dominated the Carolina League in August, going a combined 17-7 with a 2.02 ERA, but each is at least two years away.

Until then, the Orioles need quality 200-inning pitchers, veterans who know how to win. The problem is, where do you find them? The Yankees were so desperate for a veteran starter last week, )) they traded for 40-year-old Frank Tanana. The Chicago White Sox's big catch, Tim Belcher, is 3-5 with a 5.08 ERA and might not crack the club's postseason rotation.

Belcher is at the top of this year's free-agent class, along with Dennis Martinez and Sid Fernandez. The Orioles pursued Martinez in July, but should they gamble a multi-year contract on a pitcher who is 38 years old? Better they should make a meaningful trade.

One target might be Seattle left-hander Randy Johnson, the major-league leader in strikeouts (288) and opponents' batting average (.208). Everyone loves Johnson's arm, but his attitude is suspect. Still, a 1-2-3 of Mike Mussina, Johnson and Ben McDonald would be downright frightening.

As for Sutcliffe, well, he can take pride in what this staff might still accomplish, especially his protege, McDonald. Sutcliffe considered asking for his release when the Orioles dropped him from the rotation last month. Then he learned he needed knee surgery and battled back to help his team.

"What's important for myself takes a back seat to what's important to the race," Sutcliffe said. "I was like everyone else. I hoped Mike [Mussina] would pitch tonight. But if he couldn't, I always look forward to the opportunity. The physical part is over now. I look to improve."

These might be his last days in an Orioles uniform, but his legacy won't be forgotten. One of these years, Mussina, McDonald and Rhodes will take this team to a World Series. They'll tell everyone it couldn't have happened without "Sut."

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