Oates may resort to 'pinch' to rest Smith

April 20, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

Sooner or later manager Johnny Oates knows he'll go to the ballpark realizing that Lee Smith is unavailable. However, it isn't likely to be tonight, when the Orioles try to improve on their best start in 21 years in the second game of a three-game series with the California Angels.

"The problem with Lee isn't getting him to take the ball -- it will be getting him to not take it when he shouldn't," Oates said after last night's 4-3 win that improved the Orioles' record to 8-4, their best start after a dozen games since 1973.

"He [Smith] is a workhorse, but we know he can't do this all year long. He can't pitch every other day for the entire season."

But when you have a hot closer, Oates also knows the temptation to keep running him out there can be irresistible. He also has an idea of how to resist it.

"If we're on the road [when he decides Smith cannot be used in a given game], he'll be in the lineup as the leadoff hitter," said Oates. "And then I'll use a pinch hitter."

That, of course, would make Smith, who has appeared in four of the past five games, a participant and ineligible for late-inning use. As novel as the idea sounds, it isn't original.

"It's been done before," said Oates. "I saw Joe Torre [now the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals] do it when I was with the Braves. Gene Garber had pitched in about eight straight games and the next night Torre listed him as the second baseman and leadoff hitter.

"Everybody looked at the lineup and couldn't figure out what was going on. Garber walked up to the plate with his [batting] helmet on and then a pinch hitter came out."

He might not have fully understood what Torre was doing almost 20 years ago, but Oates can identify with the strategy now.

"You got him [the ace closer] out there and you know you shouldn't use him, but the temptation is there to get him up [in the bullpen] and see if he can do it again."

If the present pattern continues, and the Orioles take a lead into the late innings, Oates will face that temptation tonight. They have yet to win a game by more than three runs. "Somewhere along the line, we've got to get a laugher," he said.

In the meantime, though they're not doing it in comfortable fashion, the Orioles are enjoying the turnaround from a year ago, when they lost 13 of their first 18 games.

Not since they won 11 of 12 out of the gate in 1966, their first world championship year, have the Orioles had a better record at this early stage of the season.

It's still much too early to block off dates in October, but if the Orioles harbor an idea of getting that far, it's not too soon to find a couple of days off for Smith.

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