In the minors, Rhodes needs major nurturing

May 22, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- This is the best thing for Arthur Rhodes, as long as the Orioles don't give up on him. What Rhodes needs is a pat on the back and the chance to pitch every fifth day. After yesterday's nightmare at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles couldn't pTC get him on the plane to Rochester fast enough.

Rhodes reached the majors after only 17 starts at Triple-A -- four fewer than Mike Mussina, who was virtually a finished product coming out of Stanford. The best thing now would be to keep him at Triple-A the entire season. Heaven knows he needs the experience.

It's Rhodes' responsibility to prove he's not the left-handed Jose Mesa. It's the Orioles' responsibility to give him every chance to succeed. Left-handers with 95-mph fastballs are the rarest of baseball species. Rhodes belongs in the minor leagues, but that doesn't mean he's a lost cause.

The kid is 24 years old. Don't just give him the ball -- nurture him, teach him, encourage him. Summon minor-league pitching coordinator Tom Brown, the coach who thought he had Rhodes straightened out last winter. Summon Mike Flanagan, the former major-leaguer who recently helped turn around Brad Pennington.

This isn't a slap at pitching coach Dick Bosman -- the problem has been Rhodes' inconsistent work schedule and seeming inability to learn. His abysmal performance yesterday left the Orioles with no choice but to demote him. His immense talent leaves them with no choice but to maintain their commitment.

The three-run homer Rhodes allowed to Bob Melvin yielded the same dual outcome as the three-run homer Pennington allowed to Ken Griffey on April 22 -- a defeat, and a demotion. One day, Rhodes and Pennington might regard those home runs as turning points, if they develop into quality major-league pitchers.

"He has to take a step backward to step forward," Bosman said after Rhodes lasted barely more than one inning in the Orioles' 5-4 loss to the Yankees. "His stuff has come too far for this to happen. He's got to go down there with what he's learned and start using it on a regular basis.

"It's hard to pitch in his role, I'll concede that," Bosman continued. "Being the fifth starter, with all the off days, it's been very difficult. But at this point, he's got to throw caution to the wind and air it out -- pitch mad if you have to, happy-go-lucky if you have to. Just let it fly."

Rhodes didn't do that yesterday. He was tentative, perhaps even scared. Two years ago, he pitched the only shutout of his career at Yankee Stadium, and the Orioles' only shutout in New York since 1981. But yesterday was his first start since May 1, his first start since coming off the disabled list. He threw 41

pitches, and got only three outs.

It was all so unnecessary. Rhodes issued a leadoff walk to Bernie Williams in the first -- a big no-no with a 2-0 lead -- but he recovered to strike out Randy Velarde and retire Don Mattingly on a fly ball. Man on first, two outs, no big deal. But Rhodes fell behind in counts, then fell apart.

Single by Danny Tartabull. Walk to Jim Leyritz. Two-run single by Gerald Williams. Three-run homer by Melvin on a 2-1 count. Williams is a first-pitch fastball hitter, and Rhodes threw him a first-pitch fastball. Melvin has hit only 35 homers in nearly 2,000 career at-bats, but even he's dangerous when he knows a fastball is coming.

"Arthur throws as hard as anybody in the league," Ben McDonald said. "But I don't care who you are, bad things are going to happen when you pitch 2-0 and 3-1. He has to go out and not only throw strikes, but quality strikes. Instead of throwing the ball to the middle of the plate, he's got to hit the outer third and the inner third."

That might be too much to ask for a pitcher with such acute control problems, but the Orioles figure that if McDonald came around, why shouldn't Rhodes? The analogy is a bit of a stretch -- McDonald threw strikes from the beginning, and didn't face the pressure of pitching for a World Series contender. The point is, you don't quit on young pitchers.

"There's no doubt in my mind that what we've seen in Ben McDonald the last two years comes from the fact that he's pitched about every fifth game," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said after his club dropped to 3-11 in games started by Rhodes and Jamie Moyer.

"He's had some rocky times. He took a lot of lumps. He gave up a lot of 2-0 home runs. But he learned from the experience. This is what Arthur has to do. Unfortunately for Arthur, the ballclub right now is in a position where we can't give him the ball every fifth day and wait and wait and wait."

Likewise, it would be difficult to argue if the Orioles included Rhodes in a package for Andy Benes. Still, we're talking about a pitcher who has thrown only 242 major-league innings, spread over four seasons. No one can proclaim him a bust until he takes a regular turn for an extended period.

Now Rhodes will get that chance. He left yesterday's game after a leadoff double by Pat Kelly in the second. He left the mound without looking at his manager. He left the stadium refusing to comment.

It would be a waste, such a waste, if he was leaving the Orioles for good.

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