Relieving Anxiety

May 16, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

Richmond, Va. -- If it seems as though it takes forever for Lee Smith to get to the mound, imagine what it must be like to be Gregg Olson right now.

Of course, no one around Baltimore has given the erstwhile Otter a second thought since the Orioles opened the 1994 season. Olson has been out of sight and -- thanks to the tremendous success of his successor -- out of mind, but he appears to be making progress in his attempt to come back from a serious elbow injury and re-establish himself as one of the top closers in the game.

It is lonely work. The past few weeks have been spent in West Palm Beach, Fla., working in an extended spring training program and waiting for the Atlanta Braves to decide on his progress. He recently joined the Triple-A Richmond Braves for a 30-day injury rehabilitation assignment, which started the clock on his return to the major leagues or his release from the incentive-laden contract he signed in February.

Olson says his arm is gaining strength with every competitive appearance. He threw five times in seven days last week -- an excellent sign -- but he won't really know where he is until he is out there with something on the line.

The Braves hope that Triple-A competition will give them a better idea, but his first appearance on Saturday was a starting assignment that lasted two innings and did not simulate a late-inning situation.

"They are expecting to see me in game form," said Olson, who gave up a run on two soft hits and struck out two, "but that's tough with no adrenalin. I've been pitching in rookie ball and it's their spring training, but I was never a good spring training pitcher in the major leagues."

Therein lies the dilemma facing the Braves and the obstacle that may stand between Olson and a successful comeback. He signed a contract that calls for a $1 million incentive payment when he makes his first major-league appearance, so the Braves are going to make very sure that he is ready before they put him on the 25-man roster.

That's why he might have been better off taking less to sign with the Orioles, though it seemed an insult at the time. The five strong seasons he spent in Baltimore would have bought him all the time he needed to come back, but he gambled on a quick recovery and a chance to be Atlanta's full-time closer.

Olson is not second-guessing his decision. He just would like things to move along a little faster.

"I'm still happy I signed here," he said. "They have been real forthright with me. I've gotten the impression that I'm wanted, as soon as I show I'm ready. I'm sure I would have gotten the same feeling with the Orioles, but you can't sit and speculate."

No one in Baltimore is second-guessing that decision either. Smith took over the closer role and is saving games at an unprecedented pace. If Olson had re-signed with the Orioles in December, who knows what the bullpen would look like now?

How soon they forget. Olson used to be the guy with all the projected numbers. No reliever saved 100 games at a younger age. No reliever had been so consistent through his first five years in the major leagues. It was no wonder he never imagined that the Orioles would leave him untendered on Dec. 20 and allow him to become a free agent one year ahead of schedule.

They did, though, setting in motion a chain of events that would put Smith in Baltimore and put Olson on the mound in Richmond, trying to convince the Braves that he will be a valuable addition to the best pitching

staff in baseball.

"I feel I'm pretty close," said Olson, whose comeback was slowed by a sore forearm flexor in spring training. "Nobody knows what the adrenalin of pitching in a tight game is going to do. I'm about a mile or two per hour off my normal velocity, so I'm not far from where I need to be."

Camden Yards is only a few hours north, but the Orioles are a world away now. They have one of the best records in the majors. Their fans are rejoicing in the performance of their new closer. Olson has mixed feelings. He cannot root against his best friends, and yet it must be painful to watch them do so well without him.

"I think it's great what Lee is doing," he said. "He's getting the opportunities, and he's taking advantage of them. He's saving games for my friends. I can't say that what he is doing is eating away at me. I'd just like to be in Atlanta doing the same thing. I guess I'm a little jealous because I wish I had had that many [save] opportunities when I was there."

It would be hard to make any statistical case that Olson has been

missed, but there is more to the game than statistics. Smith has been on a roll, but the rest of the bullpen has struggled. Could it be that the departure of Olson and the release of right-handed setup man Todd Frohwirth have exacted a price on the chemistry of the pitching staff?

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