Pennington wrong man for the job

April 25, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

It is somewhat less than reassuring to know that the Orioles were among the last to recognize that Brad Pennington isn't ready to help them, but they finally got the message yesterday.

As a general rule, getting clubbed on the head tends to get your attention.

The baseball version of such occurred in the eighth inning yesterday at Camden Yards, when manager Johnny Oates brought in Pennington from the bullpen to protect a three-run lead and watched him blow the game with two pitches.

At least the frightful loss on a beautiful spring afternoon was good for one thing: forcing an overdue roster change. Boos should be mandatory at tonight's game if the club hasn't replaced Pennington with Mike Oquist on the roster by the first pitch. Enough is enough. There is slow-moving and there is blind.

Of course, Oquist is a soft-throwing rookie who doesn't resemble the bullpen savior the Orioles need. But he is a fresh face with a 0.00 ERA, and, considering the state of the bullpen, any change is as welcome as it is necessary.

The 46,640 fans who watched the 7-6 loss yesterday went home cursing Oates for going to Pennington in the eighth inning with the bases loaded, none out and left-handed Ken Griffey coming up.

But the manager was hardly facing a set of attractive alternatives.

He could have left starter Jamie Moyer in to pitch to Griffey, as he had intended when the inning began, but by the time Moyer got to Griffey, three straight batters had reached base and Moyer had thrown 111 pitches. It was time for Moyer to go.

He could have summoned lefty Jim Poole, for whom the pickle was custom-made, but he was determined to give a day off to Poole, who had pitched in two straight games and nine overall, as many as heavily worked Lee Smith.

That left the other late-innings guys in the bullpen: Pennington, Alan Mills and Mark Eichhorn. Hardly a choice to relish. All three are off to miserable starts. Going into yesterday, Mills had allowed 16 base runners in 4 1/3 innings, Eichhorn 14 in 5 2/3 innings, Pennington 16 in six innings.

"Statistically, at least, Pennington has done the best of them," Oates said afterward, somewhat incredulously.

Pennington wasn't the right man for the job, but, with Poole out of the mix, the truth was that there wasn't a right man. Mills has gotten out of jams before, but he's been awful lately. Eichhorn can't get lefties out this year. Oates chose Pennington because the young lefty is on the team precisely for such a situation: pitching to a left-handed batter in the late innings.

"That [Griffey] was Poole's situation, I know that, but we can't just use two guys [Poole and Smith] out of the bullpen the whole season," Oates said. "I didn't want to use Poole at all today. We have to start finding out who else can get guys out."

Pennington can't.

The Orioles know now -- finally.

Pennington's first pitch to Griffey was a wild pitch that allowed a run to score. His second pitch to Griffey turned into a 438-foot homer -- only the fourth homer to land on Eutaw Street.

For those scoring at home, that was two pitches, four runs across the plate and a seemingly sure win transformed into a loss.

"I was booing, too," said Pennington, who heard plenty.

If you want to second-guess Oates, second-guess him for stubbornly refusing to use Poole in a situation that cried out for Poole. But it's a flimsy second guess.

"Poole can't pitch every day," Oates said. "I think I was justified in trying to get by without him today."

(Oates wound up using Poole later in the eighth, but only "after my best-laid plans were ruined," Oates said.)

No, the truly second-guessable call was the Orioles' decision to keep Pennington after he had struggled in four straight outings, at one point allowing eight straight batters to reach base. It seemed the Orioles were still trying to confirm what everyone else could see: Pennington's wild, fastball-dominated repertoire just isn't sophisticated enough for the bigs.

Even Pennington was admitting it yesterday. "My fastball just isn't getting by these hitters," he said. "I need to start tricking them more."

In Rochester, not Baltimore.

Understand, what the bullpen really needs, first and foremost, is for Mills to revert to his form of the past few years. That Mills was the right man to pitch to Griffey yesterday. But that Mills has rarely appeared this year, and his confidence is at a low ebb.

He did pitch a 1-2-3 ninth yesterday.

"That was a good sign," Poole said. "Hopefully, that's the start of something for the whole bullpen."

Swapping Pennington for Oquist doesn't figure to turn the thing around. If it does, baseball is a lot simpler than it's made out to be. But a change is a change is a change, and, at this point, any change is a change for the better.

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