Smith endures the long walk, makes short work of Royals OPENING DAY '94

April 05, 1994|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Writer

There probably isn't an official measurement of the distance from the Orioles' bullpen and the mound at Camden Yards, but Lee Smith likely would swear it's a mile.

In his first official appearance as the Orioles' closer, Smith came on in the ninth to get the save in yesterday's 6-3 win over the Kansas City Royals in the season opener. But he spent more time getting to the mound than he did on it.

"Man, if I go out there 40 times, I'll get a pretty good workout," Smith said. "I heard Cal [Ripken] has got some pull around here. We've got to get a cart."

The long walk gave Smith, baseball's all-time saves leader, a chance to ponder how he would pitch to an old nemesis, Kansas City outfielder Dave Henderson.

"I can do that in a little jog, but that wasn't a little jog," Smith said.

Smith, 36, may have expended considerable energy on the trip in, but he earned his 402nd career save in a most economical fashion.

He got Henderson to look at a first-pitch fastball for a strike, then induced him to tap meekly to third baseman Chris Sabo, who forced Bob Hamelin at second to end the game.

"I usually hook him [Henderson] a lot, and I threw him a fastball, and I think it surprised him. He usually has a lot of success on me," Smith said.

Sabo, who signed with the Orioles as a free agent in January after six seasons in Cincinnati, had a less ostentatious debut in Baltimore, going 0-for-3, but reaching on a walk and an error.

"I didn't do anything offensively, but the team won," Sabo said. "As long as we keep winning, everybody's happy."

The acquisition of Sabo, 32, was not nearly as heralded as that of Smith, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro or pitcher Sid Fernandez. But Sabo is eager to make his mark.

"I'm a firm believer that if you get off to a good start, it can carry you through the season. We've got a chance to do something here, and I'm looking forward to being a part of it," said Sabo, who has more extra-base hits than any other third baseman since his debut with the Reds in 1988.

While Sabo has been fairly consistent in the past few seasons, Smith, who replaces Orioles all-time saves leader Gregg Olson as closer, has had to listen to whispers about how much longer he can be effective.

Smith has three straight 40-plus save seasons and has made the past three All-Star Games, but there has been talk that his fastball doesn't fire so brightly anymore.

His slow start in spring training didn't slow speculation that the New York Yankees, who obtained Smith in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals for last season's pennant chase, knew what they were doing when they didn't try to re-sign him after the season, despite not having a reliable closer to replace him.

Smith has heard the talk and acknowledges that his fastball "is not where I want it." What has carried him is knowledge of hitters, along with a good arsenal of pitches, including a slider and a forkball.

"My control has really helped me out in the last few weeks," Smith said. "If I get out there and pitch very well, things will take care of themselves."

Both Sabo and Smith still need a little more time to get accustomed to their new surroundings. Sabo, for instance, needed directions to the holding room the Orioles have set up near their clubhouse for families to wait.

And Smith is having a few problems finding his way to work.

"Are you kidding? I keep getting lost," Smith said. "Me and [new Orioles pitcher Mark] Eichhorn have spent more money on gas getting lost the past two days than we do all year. We can see the ballpark, but we can't get to it."

Once he has mastered that, maybe Smith can work on finding a shorter route from the bullpen to the mound.

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