Mills rules power duels using smarts

April 10, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The matchups were classic power vs. power, and Johnny Oates' message to Alan Mills was equally straightforward. "He listens very well," the Orioles' manager joked later. "I told him, 'All you've got to do is strike out three in a row.' "

That's what Mills did in the sixth inning of yesterday's 7-5 victory over Texas -- struck out Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco and Dean Palmer for an electrifying escape after relieving Mike Mussina with men on second and third and none out.

Pitching coach Dick Bosman said it was as good as he has ever seen Mills throw, and Palmer called his fastball "one of the best I've seen in a while." But Mills didn't just overpower the three Texas sluggers. He outsmarted them as well.

The Rangers had pulled within 3-2 on three straight singles off Mussina. Texas manager Kevin Kennedy was so disturbed by their inability to add more runs, he called a team meeting for this morning, four games into a 162-game schedule.

Kennedy wasn't only upset by the 1-3 Rangers' situational hitting -- among other things, he cited a fly ball that should have been caught by center fielder David Hulse, and catcher Ivan Rodriguez's failure to handle a throw to the plate.

But clearly, the second-year manager viewed the sixth as a microcosm of his team's problems. "You win ballgames with your mind, not your physical ability," Kennedy said. "Your mind has to work on all phases at all times. That's what's so taxing about this game."

And that's where the Rangers so often are vulnerable. Their Big Three combined for 89 home runs last year, even though Canseco missed half the season. But, with the Orioles playing their infield back, Gonzalez and Canseco couldn't even manage a game-tying groundout with less than two outs.

Mills threw 88-89 mph on the slower of the two radar guns, but just as importantly, he kept the ball down and away. With a base open, he didn't necessarily need to throw strikes. That proved a distinct advantage against the free-swinging Rangers, who have drawn only seven walks in four games.

Gonzalez was first. He hit seven homers against the Orioles last season, and was 3-for-6 with a double and a homer off Mills. In the eighth inning, he would again solve Mills with a three-run homer, but by then, it was too late. The Orioles still led 6-5.

"He's not the type of hitter who hits many ground balls," Mills said. "You don't want to give him anything he's going to hit in the air. Johnny said what he did. I'm going for the punch-out. But that doesn't mean it's going to work out that way."

Mills got ahead 1-2, but Gonzales fouled off three pitches with two strikes, working the count to 3-2. Gonzalez said he was thinking, "Long fly." But he struck out swinging on a slider that would have been ball four.

Canseco took better swings, but Mills worked him just as cleverly, backing him off the plate before striking him out on a fastball. "I got a couple of pitches, and I couldn't do anything with them," Canseco said. "It was his day, that's for sure."

That left Palmer. He hit six home runs last season at Camden Yards, the most ever by a visiting player in Baltimore. But he, too, struck out swinging, and is now 0-for-7 lifetime off Mills. "He had a great fastball today -- that was all he needed," Palmer said. "It was hard to catch up with him."

Eighteen pitches, 12 strikes, six swinging. Mills held opponents to a league-low .187 average with runners on base last season (minimum 150 plate appearances). He even shut out the Rangers for four innings in a 6-5, 12-inning victory last Aug. 21. But this was something special, something more.

"That's as good as I've seen him," Bosman said. "When you throw the ball 90 mph with a deceptive delivery, down and away, then up and in, they've got their hands full. You can't look for one and hit the other. If you guess wrong, you're liable to get hit."

Kennedy was just as complimentary of Mills, but he recalled an old line from his days as a dugout coach under Montreal manager Felipe Alou: "It does not always take your best swing to get the job done."

As an example, Kennedy pointed to Orioles third baseman Chris Sabo's game-tying triple Friday night. Sabo got fooled by a breaking pitch, but he kept his hands back, reached down for the ball and lined it into the gap in right-center field.

Last season, Kennedy used Julio Franco as his No. 5 hitter, giving the Rangers a contact hitter in the middle of the order. But now Franco is with the Chicago White Sox, and Gonzales, Canseco and Palmer hit in the 4-5-6 spots. Kennedy said he might adjust his lineup to prevent a repeat of yesterday.

"It may be a thing where I switch some guys around," Kennedy said. "I may not do it after one game where it became a glaring hole -- the three-run homer got us right back in it, Jose got a hit, and the tying run was on. This is not a panic situation. But it's a thing that has to be addressed. Our guys are very capable of hitting the other way."

Not yesterday they weren't. Bosman said Mills pitched with "supreme confidence." Gonzalez, Canseco and Palmer were left dazed and confused. In the matchup of power vs. power, Alan Mills used the most underrated tool in baseball: his mind.

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