Closer-to-be Mills finds Smith to be calming model

April 19, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

Baseball's all-time saves leader doesn't think about what to say. Instead, he says what he thinks, bypassing the middle man that is caution.

Yet, one question did stump Lee Smith: When was the last time you were nervous, Lee?

He pounded his glove once . . . twice . . . three times. If you think he jogs to the mound slowly, you should watch him pound his glove.

Then it hits him. "Oh yeah," he says. "In the delivery room with my wife."

He senses a puzzled look and offers another response. "Or did you mean pertaining to baseball?" he asks. "I've never been nervous or anything like that in baseball. Ain't but two things can happen. They hit you or they don't."

And there ain't but two things that rile one of baseball's most easygoing individuals.

"Only time I get mad is if I go home [to Louisiana] and the fish ain't biting," he says. "Oh yeah. One other thing makes me mad. If my setup man don't show up to the ballpark on time."

Smith says this, looks down the row at Orioles closer-in-waiting Alan Mills, and unleashes a Cajun cackle that originates from the belly and bounces off the walls. Smith joins Mills and they head for the tunnel that leads to the field.

Smith, who leads the majors with six saves and has 407 in his career, has an appreciation of Mills that rivals Mills' respect for Smith.

"Lee's very relaxed," Mills said. "But I guess when you have that many saves and have done it that long, you know how to relax."

The respect goes both ways.

"I think he definitely has the stuff to be a closer," Smith said of Mills. "He has a real good fastball. He'll challenge guys and he's smart enough to throw something other than a fastball once in a while. He's been picking at me a little about what goes into being a closer."

Orioles manager Johnny Oates said he will try to limit Mills to one-inning appearances so that he, Smith and left-hander Jim Poole are available on a nightly basis. Mills' role is growing closer to the ninth inning all the time.

So why didn't the Orioles make Mills their closer after Gregg Olson's departure? Not because he didn't want the job. He did.

"I'm happy here with the job I have and I'll do whatever the team would like for me to do, but I would eventually like to be a closer," Mills said. "And I don't want to wait until my fastball's gone."

Again, why didn't the Orioles make Mills the closer?

The answer is twofold. First, Smith was available at a bargain price of $1.5 million. Second, moving Mills into that role would leave the Orioles short in the setup department.

In other words, Mills, 27, was a victim of the Orioles' lack of bullpen depth.

He doesn't view it that way, preferring to look at the positive aspects of not being given the job. Specifically, he goes to school on Smith, just as he went to school on Dave Righetti with the Yankees and Olson with the Orioles. The most important lesson learned?

"When it's over, it's over," Mills said. "You can't carry it to the next day."

The next time Mills takes the mound, he will be coming off his worst outing of the season. In the ninth inning of Sunday night's game against the Texas Rangers, Mills yielded back-to-back home runs that traveled a combined 826 feet. After Dean Palmer singled, Oates did something he had hoped to avoid. He brought Smith into a game the night after he threw 30 pitches.

The outing drove Mills' ERA in six appearances to 18.00, the most misleading statistic in baseball.

The first-place Orioles (7-4) have won each of the six games in which Mills has pitched and easily could be 4-7 without their hardest thrower's contributions.

Before starting the ninth Sunday night, Mills had entered each of his previous four games with two runners on base. None of the eight runners scored. Seven batters came to the plate in those situations. Five struck out.

Clearly, it has been an all-or-nothing season for Mills. On the down side, he has allowed four home runs and eight hits in four innings. He has walked two and struck out eight.

Smith realizes you don't judge a reliever by his ERA. He also sympathizes with Mills' desire to become a closer.

"Setting up is a tough situation for young guys to be in because all anybody notices is who gets the save," Smith said. "I did the same thing before I was a closer. Jay Howell, Dick Tidrow, Willie Hernandez, Bruce Sutter, I set up all of them."

And Mills is a setup man for Smith.

Oates likes the combination, but hopes he won't have to count on them as much as he has recently, setting them up for rough outings similar to the one they encountered Sunday.

"There is no doubt in my mind being a closer is the toughest job in baseball," Oates said. "You never get to pitch unless a game is on the line. But if you are good at it, you can make a lot of money per pitch."

Mills has the potential to make that kind of money someday and Oates thinks having Smith around might help Mills reach that level.

"Lee knows he's not going to save them all," said Oates, "but he also knows he's going to save more than he blows. When he does blow one, he's ready to come back the next time. Alan can learn from that because he is one who never wants to give up a base hit."

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