Fernandez perfect fit as No. 3 starter

April 18, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ARLINGTON, Texas -- He squeezed through tiny openings. Slithered through narrow escape hatches. Wiggled his way out of terrifying jams.

Sid Fernandez might be a few sizes bigger than Houdini, but if his Orioles debut was any indication, he could turn out to be the best No. 3 starter in the American League.

That's not saying much in a league that boasted a 5.10 ERA entering yesterday's play. Still, at $9 million for three years, the Orioles might actually get what they paid for.

All you needed to see last night was the first inning. Or the second. Or even the fourth. Texas had base runners by the forkful, but Fernandez consumed them one by one.

It wasn't an especially smooth performance, but it offered a glimpse of Fernandez's breathtaking ability. He allowed seven base runners in 3 2/3 innings yet left with a 2-0 lead.

How many times do you see a team escape bases-loaded jams three times in four innings? Fernandez did it twice on his own, and reliever Mark Williamson pitched in on the third.

The Rangers again loaded the bases on Williamson in the fifth and finally scored on a sacrifice fly by Doug Strange. The Orioles nearly blew a five-run lead in the late innings but held on for a 6-5 victory when they could have been routed.

Through five innings, Texas was 1-for-12 with men in scoring position -- 0-for-8 against Fernandez, who struck out Dean Palmer with the bases loaded to end the first, and Will Clark with the bases loaded to end the second.

The Orioles are 6-0 behind Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, 0-4 behind Jamie Moyer and Arthur Rhodes. Fernandez gives them another quality starter, reducing the pressure on everyone else.

The difference could be immense. The Orioles had a 4.81 ERA entering yesterday's play, but believe it or not, that ranked seventh in the AL. Six teams were above 5.70, including Boston and Toronto.

The two-time defending world champion Blue Jays have allowed 23 homers in 119 1/3 innings, numbers that would make Ken Dixon proud. They're 8-5 only because they're averaging 7.2 runs.

Indeed, the scoring around the majors is so out of control, the Orioles entered yesterday's play averaging 5.1 runs, and ranked only 10th in the AL.

"Who are you going to ask for pitching?" assistant general manager Doug Melvin asked. "If they're going to give it up, you're going to get a

pitcher who's got a 6.00 ERA."

Here's the good news: The last time people thought the ball was juiced, the Minnesota Twins won the World Series with Les Straker as their No. 3 starter.

The year was 1987.

Straker finished 8-10 with a 4.37 ERA.

Fernandez is better than that. He threw 95 pitches last night but struck out five in 3 2/3 innings, showing no signs of the shoulder bursitis that sidelined him nearly all spring.

If not for an error by third baseman Chris Sabo and a poor throw by first baseman Rafael Palmeiro on a pickoff, manager Johnny Oates said, Fernandez might have lasted longer.

"If I didn't get into those jams, I could have been out there five or six innings," Fernandez said. "I haven't thrown that many pitches in that short a time in a long time."

It started with a 27-pitch first inning. Through little fault of his own -- a bunt single, a walk and Sabo's error -- Fernandez faced a one-out, bases-loaded jam with Jose Canseco and Palmer coming to bat.

Canseco has hit four homers against the Orioles this season. Palmer hit seven homers against them last season. But Fernandez popped up one and struck out the other after falling behind 3-0.

The second inning was just as tense, just as perilous, just as dramatic. The Rangers placed men on second and third with one out and the top of their order set to face Fernandez a second time.

Fernandez struck out leadoff man David Hulse, then issued a two-out walk to Chris James. That loaded the bases for Clark, who was 10-for-31 (.323) with two homers off him in the National League.

Everything was working against Fernandez: Clark entered the game 5-for-10 with men in scoring position. But after popping him up with two on in the first inning, Fernandez froze him with a slow breaking ball for a called strike three.

Clark didn't swing at the pitch, but he swung in anger after letting it pass. He wound up stranding seven runners in the first four innings. The Rangers never recovered.

"He never has thrown me for a breaking ball for a strike," Clark said afterward. "He threw me two of 'em, and one of 'em was nasty."

Rarely has a start of 3 2/3 innings been so uplifting. Sid Fernandez fills the hole in the Orioles' rotation. Fills it with his entire body. Fills it just fine.

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