For Smith, now it's how, not how fast

March 30, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- In the autumn of his career, Lee Smith is in the midst of a shaky spring.

What to make of it? Not much if your name is Johnny Oates and you have known the man for 10 years.

"There is no doubt he will be out there for us in the ninth inning," Oates said. "There never has been any doubt about that."

Oates isn't about to let anything he sees in games that don't count alter his plans for his closer, even though Smith's fastball hasn't wowed anyone in Florida this spring.

"The thing that's important to remember is you don't judge Lee on how he does in a spring training game," the Orioles' manager said. "Lee doesn't get too excited pitching in 11-1 games or in spring training games. He does get excited pitching in 3-2 games."

Smith pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning last night against the Phillies at Jack Russell Stadium. The game was declared a 6-6 tie after 11 innings.

Opponents are batting .282 against Smith, who has struck out 11 and walked four in 9 2/3 innings.

The scouts watching games from behind home plate have come away with a similar impression of Smith as they do of Houston's Mitch Williams and Cincinnati's Rob Dibble: the fastball lacks the punch of days past.

"Nobody still throws as hard as they did 10 or 15 years ago," Smith said. "My fastball isn't where it needs to be yet."

He remains confident it will get there, even if it won't be there as consistently anymore.

"I can still throw 90 [mph] at times, but it doesn't matter how hard you throw it," he said. "It matters where you put it. I don't throw as hard as I used to, but all that matters is you get that 27th out."

Despite similar reports about his fastball, Smith was around for the 27th out 46 times last season, third-best in the major leagues. He has averaged 45 saves the past three seasons.

His 401 career saves make him the all-time leader. Most came courtesy of a mid-90s fastball. Now, Smith relies on control, movement, variety.

"He's more of a pitcher now," said Oates, a coach with the Cubs for three of seven-plus seasons Smith pitched for Chicago. "He's become more creative. With the Cubs it was all fastballs. He had a slider, but he didn't throw it much. It wasn't as good as it is now, but it didn't have to be as good."

Now, many of Smith's strikeouts come on a forkball he learned from Frank DiPino, a teammate in St. Louis, the third of Smith's five major-league stops.

Smith, 36, prefers to view the change as an achievement rather than an act of desperation.

"I'd like to be given a little credit for learning a new pitch, for being smart enough to know how to pitch, instead of just hearing how I had to come up with a new pitch because I lost something off my fastball," Smith said.

Smith's pitches don't arrive as quickly as they once did, but they do hit the intended target more often. He walked 14 batters and struck out 60 in 58 innings for the Cardinals and Yankees in 1993.

"He's done about we expected he would do in spring training," Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said. "He's had real good control. Remember, he still had 46 saves last year, so he's got the know-how."

Smith's style has changed, but his nerves have not.

"I don't let too much bother me," Smith said.

"I guess you could say I've got thick skin."

In contrast to his more overpowering days, Smith rarely has the sort of wild innings Orioles left-hander Arthur Rhodes had last night against the Phillies in his sixth appearance of the spring.

Making his first start since a line drive off the right thigh knocked him out in the second inning five days earlier, Rhodes lasted four innings, walked six, hit a batter and gave up five runs (two earned).

In the first, the Phillies scored three runs on two walks, a hit-batsman, a rare Cal Ripken throwing error, a Rich Gedman passed ball, and a Tom Marsh bloop single to right.

Walks again were the undoing of Rhodes in the Phillies' two-run fourth. He gave up a leadoff walk to pitcher Tommy Greene in the fourth and walked Lenny Dykstra. Both runners scored on a two-out double down the left-field line by Dave Hollins.

Six Phillies pitchers combined for 17 strikeouts.

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