Once again, Lee Smith saves his best for ninth

SIDELIGHT

April 24, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

Lee Smith's act is getting redundant.

Smith gave yesterday's sellout crowd at Camden Yards one more glimpse of his routine. Another leisurely stroll to the mound, another scoreless ninth inning, another save, another slap at the critics who declared last winter that the major leagues' all-time saves leader was finished.

After he polished off Seattle in 1-2-3 fashion to clinch the Orioles' 4-3 victory, Smith responded with a typically carefree shrug when informed of his latest achievement. He became the first pitcher in history to record nine saves in a team's first 16 games. The fastest had been 20 games.

"I can't say that I go out and get clippings. Maybe I should for my kids' scrapbook," said Smith, who has 410 career saves. "I had the record last year, and I had to battle to get a job this winter, so what does it matter? I'm just glad the Orioles took a chance on me."

The Orioles are rather thrilled themselves. Last winter, they parted ways with sore-armed, former closer Gregg Olson, who saved 160 games for them in five years, but is on the disabled list with the Atlanta Braves. They signed Smith for 1994 to fill the closer role for what appears to be a bargain-basement price of $1.5 million.

Most teams didn't see it that way at the time. Although Smith was coming off a 46-save season -- and 136 saves in his previous three -- the skeptics claimed he was too old (36). They said his fastball had lost noticeable velocity, and as proof, they offered his career-high ERA (4.50) and the 11 home runs he surrendered in 58 innings in 1993.

"All I heard about was the ERA and the home runs. Only one of those home runs actually cost us a game," said Smith, who took a substantial pay cut this year. "It hurt my confidence a little. Who doesn't want a raise? But I had to step off the porch and get myself together. My dad never made a million and a half dollars in his life, so who am I to be crying about a one and a half million dollars?"

Yesterday, Smith was at his best again. Using impeccable control and the guile of a 14-year veteran who is headed for the Hall of Fame, Smith hardly looked like a pitcher in the twilight of his career.

He started the ninth inning by striking out Mike Blowers swinging, on a 1-2 fastball that grazed the inside corner. Next up was Eric Anthony, who bounced a curveball to first baseman Rafael Palmeiro for an easy out. Finally, after pinch-hitter Reggie Jefferson worked the count full, Smith induced him to fly out to left to end the game. The Mariners fell to 5-11, and their relievers still are searching for their first save.

"It's not like he saved 46 games five years ago. He saved 46 games last year," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates, who was a coach with the Cubs when Smith became a dominant closer in the mid-1980s.

"He has the perfect mental approach for a closer, and there's no doubt that the closer has the toughest job in baseball. Nothing else compares."

Smith has left a huge imprint on the Orioles' strong start. He has saved nine of their 10 victories, and has done so with remarkable economy. In eight innings, he has not allowed an earned run or a walk, while surrendering only four hits and recording seven strikeouts.

Smith learned early on in his career about the importance of location, an axiom he has mastered over the years while relying more on a variety of pitches and less on his once-blazing fastball.

"In Wrigley [Field in Chicago], you have to hit the corners or you hit the streets. And in Chicago, I would never have dreamed of throwing a 3-2 slider like I did today," he said. "Today was the probably the worst fastball I've had this year."

Said Oates: "He has the experience and knowledge to close out a game. I think he's doing pretty well for a guy who has been washed up for the past three years."

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