Except for Smith, little relief in sight for Oates

April 21, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Here's the good news about last night's 8-2 loss to California: Manager Johnny Oates didn't need to use Lee Smith for the fifth time in six days, not after Alan Mills entered a 2-2 game in the ninth inning and combined with Brad Pennington to turn it into the worst defeat of the season.

Right now, the Orioles' awful middle-inning relief is Oates' most vexing problem. He couldn't get Smith a night off Tuesday because Mark Eichhorn and Jim Poole needed help to escape the ninth, and he couldn't bank on a victory last night after the latest brilliant outing from Mike Mussina.

Oates removed Mussina after a one-out single by Harold Reynolds in the ninth. Mussina had thrown 122 pitches, plenty for a pitcher coming off arm trouble. Only in this cruel sport could he pitch so well and be charged with a loss.

Mills allowed three hits, a walk and a sacrifice fly, twice failing to bury hitters on two-strike counts. He has allowed seven earned runs in one-third of an inning in his past two outings, increasing his ERA from 11.25 to 24.92. To think, he's the best setup man on the staff.

Pennington allowed his first four hitters to reach base, making it eight straight he had failed to retire. His streak climaxed with a bases-loaded walk to Reynolds. His ERA stands at 12.00. Next stop, Rochester?

Make a trade, promote Mike Oquist, do something. Mills' problem right now is his location; that will correct itself. Pennington, however, has yet to prove he can pitch at this level. He, Mills, Eichhorn and Poole have combined for a 13.22 ERA.

The scary part is, Oates has no choice but to keep using them. Mussina was gassed last night, and because he injured himself throwing 141 pitches last season in Detroit, Oates plans to keep him in the 120-pitch range as long as he is manager.

Enter the bullpen.

"We're going to find out who can do it, and who can't," Oates said. "One bad outing is not going to deter me from using them again. We're going to put them on the mound, and we'll make decisions -- not based on past records, based on results. We can't go all year with a three- or four-man staff."

Especially when two of those pitchers are young starters with a history of arm trouble (Mussina and Ben McDonald) and the third is a 36-year-old closer who has thrown more than 1,100 major-league innings (Smith).

Oates is so concerned about overworking Smith, he's even talking about occasionally writing him into the lineup as his leadoff hitter on the road, then pinch-hitting for him as soon as the game begins to ensure that he's unavailable.

Smith won't be this good all season -- at a career success rate of 84 percent, he averages seven to eight blown chances in a 40-save season. But if a baseball stereotype applies to Smith, it's the crafty veteran, not the washed-up fireballer.

Six innings, no walks. How many times did Gregg Olson go through such a stretch? Smith has faced 23 hitters, and gone to ball three only three times. Last season, Olson went 3-2 once every five hitters -- and the ratio was even higher if you included all of his 3-0 and 3-1 counts.

No, Smith doesn't throw as hard as in the past -- Orioles assistant general manager Frank Robinson said the difference from five years ago is "about 10 mph." But he uses his slider far more effectively, and Oates said his control right now "is impeccable -- he's throwing the ball wherever he wants to."

For a hard thrower, Smith always had decent location, but he's throwing even more strikes now that he no longer can rely on an overpowering fastball. Before 1990, he averaged 3.59 walks per nine innings. Since then, he's averaging 2.50.

Compare that to Olson's career average of 4.06. Indeed, the difference with Smith is obvious to anyone who watched the Orioles in the Olson years. "If he's going to get beat, he's going to get beat with you swinging the bat," Robinson said. "He's not going to beat himself."

Olson is a different style of pitcher, a curveball specialist bound to struggle with his location. Smith's breaking pitch, the slider, is easier to control. And he added a forkball in 1990 with no accompanying increase in wildness.

That's not the only advantage of throwing a slider. Olson, 27, is on the disabled list for the second time in his six-year career. Smith, 36, has appeared in 857 major-league games over 14 years, yet never gone on the DL with arm trouble.

He again was available last night, but the Orioles never got that far.

Before the game, Oates compared his temptation to use Smith to his temptation to eat cookies. Today, Oates will have his cholesterol count checked. The way his middle-inning relievers are going, he might want to monitor his blood pressure, too.

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