Mussina's win is sharp contrast to Moyer's loss

April 26, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Now that's the way it's supposed to work. The starter retires 18 in a row after allowing six runs in two innings. The middle-inning reliever bails him out of a two-out jam in the eighth. The closer protects a two-run lead in the ninth

If the Orioles' pitching staff had been that efficient all season, then maybe manager Johnny Oates wouldn't have created such a fuss Sunday, summoning Brad Pennington to face Ken Griffey with the bases loaded, none out and the Orioles leading Seattle 6-3.

Oates waited too long to remove Jamie Moyer in part because he feared that his middle relievers would blow the lead. It turned out that Pennington erased it in two pitches, against a hitter destined to beat him, in a situation he didn't belong.

Last night was different.

Last night, Mike Mussina performed a minor miracle, working into the eighth after throwing 56 pitches in the first two innings. Alan Mills retired pinch-hitter Rickey Henderson with two on for the final out of the eighth, and Lee Smith earned his 10th save with a scoreless ninth.

The 8-6 comeback victory over Oakland was reminiscent of Fernando Valenzuela's 6-0 shutout of Toronto last season after a crushing ninth-inning loss to the Blue Jays the night before. The Orioles needed this one, and so did Oates.

Who should he have used against Griffey? Anybody but Pennington. Anybody but a left-handed reliever against whom left-handed hitters were 6-for-7. Anybody but a pitcher who had given up a home run to Griffey the only other time he had faced him.

Yes, Oates wanted to rest his other left-handed reliever, Jim Poole. Yes, his other choices seemed even worse than Pennington. But an entire city groaned when Pennington entered the game, knowing what was about to come.

Why didn't Oates?

Pennington got his long-awaited and much-deserved demotion yesterday, but the question still lingered. No way he should have been matched up against one of the game's most feared hitters. No way he should have been put in such a position to fail.

Oates' admittedly "high-risk" strategy contrasted sharply with his conservative approach in the bottom half of the eighth, when he ordered Chris Hoiles to sacrifice with men on first and second, none out and the Orioles trailing by one run.

Rafael Palmeiro got picked off second when Hoiles failed to get the bunt down, but Oates said he'd employ the same tactic "100,000 times out of 100,000 in that situation." He wasn't nearly as adamant about the Pennington move, but said, "I think we found out something -- at least for the present -- if we didn't know it already."

They knew -- Oates, general manager Roland Hemond, all of them. But Hemond, a man who once fired a manager after six games, wouldn't demote a second-year reliever after three innings. That left Oates to invoke the age-old manager's rationale: "If he's here, we've got to use him."

Second-guessing is the easiest thing in baseball, managing the toughest -- and if Darren Bragg doesn't hit a lucky single off Moyer's glove, the inning never gets started. The disturbing thing about Sunday was that Oates left Pennington no margin for error, a dangerous tactic with any reliever, especially one so wild and inexperienced.

When Oates took over as manager, his use of the bullpen was a revelation -- he established set roles, and managed with a plan. He wanted his starters to leave the ballpark with positive results if they pitched well. And he wanted his relievers to enter games with roomto fail.

Lately, though, Oates has deviated from his plan, and not simply because he wants his starters to remain in the game as long as possible. Sixteen of the Orioles' 18 games have been decided by three runs or less (they're 11-5). Twelve have been decided by two runs or less (9-3).

As Oates said, "You don't have a lot of room to play with -- every time they come in, the game's on the line." So, everyone suffers. On Saturday, Poole replaced Sid Fernandez with two outs and the bases loaded in a tie game. Luckily, Poole escaped -- otherwise, Fernandez might have suffered the loss.

Moyer left Sunday's game with the bases loaded and a 6-3 lead. Under normal circumstances -- "if Mills is Mills," Oates said -- he probably would have been removed after Bragg's leadoff single. Instead, he wound up getting charged with six runs when Pennington faltered, his ERA inflating from 4.91 to 5.59.

Statistics aren't the issue here, wins and losses are. As much as Oates wanted to give Poole a day off Sunday, he still wound up using him after the Orioles fell behind. As for Griffey, with left-handed hitters batting .857 off Pennington, Oates could have summoned a right-hander with no argument.

Indeed, as poorly as he had pitched, Mills would have been preferable. Griffey was 2-for-6 with two strikeouts and two walks against him. Not encouraging, but at least Mills had gotten him out. He later pitched a 1-2-3 inning, retiring Griffey on a fly ball, and last night he needed only two pitches to retire Henderson on a fly ball.

It's all hindsight, but no one could have criticized Oates for refusing to use Pennington. If the front office had a problem, Oates could have said, "Sorry, but he doesn't belong here" -- achieving the same outcome as yesterday, with maybe a better result the day before.

Instead, Oates lost the game, and maybe all hope with Pennington. It's fair to ask whether the 25-year-old left-hander will recover from this, even fairer to ask whether he'll ever wear an Orioles uniform again. No way he should have faced Griffey. No way he should have been put in such a position to fail.

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