Oquist poised for his first big-league start

SIDELIGHT

May 31, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

When Mike Oquist takes the mound for his first major-league start tonight, he knows he'll be facing a Detroit Tigers lineup that could make the experience a miserable one.

But don't expect Oquist to be jittery on the hill. This is one rookie who doesn't rattle easily.

Throughout a five-year professional career that has seen him develop four pitches while climbing the ladder in the Orioles organization, Oquist's cool demeanor has served him well.

It came in handy three weeks ago when Oquist-- who was recalled from Rochester on April 25 -- relieved Jamie Moyer and no-hit the dangerous Toronto Blue Jays for five innings, earning his first big-league victory.

Oquist pulled a similar stunt 10 days ago at Yankee Stadium. After Arthur Rhodes surrendered five runs in the first inning, Oquist baffled New York for seven shutout innings in a 5-4 loss.

Tonight, Oquist (1-0, 0.69 ERA) gets his ultimate wish -- a chance to show he belongs in the starting rotation, with a sellout home crowd watching.

"This is what you work so many years and throw so many innings for," said Oquist, a native of La Junta, Colo., who turned 26 yesterday. "If it was my first outing, I'd probably be a little more nervous."

Oquist remembers the butterflies he felt before his first trip to a big-league mound, last August in Yankee Stadium on Reggie Jackson Day. The Orioles were trailing by two runs in the ninth inning. The Yankees had a runner on third with one out.

"I couldn't throw a strike warming up in the bullpen," said Oquist, who found the strike zone when it counted. He induced Spike Owen to ground out to first, then struck out Pat Kelly to prevent the run from scoring.

Last year, his second at Rochester, marked a turning point for Oquist. When the Orioles drafted him in the 13th round in 1989, Oquist relied primarily on a fastball, a slider and fine control, tools that aided him at the University of Arkansas, where he pitched in two College World Series. Those same tools helped him win 36 games over 3 1/2 seasons at four minor-league levels. But Oquist hit a wall in 1993.

"I was 3-7 in the middle of last year, when Arthur Rhodes came down [to Rochester] for rehab after his knee operation, and they moved me to the bullpen. It was an eye-opener," he said. "It was the first time I made a conscious effort to throw more changeups. Toward the end of the year, I started to throw the curve more as well. Now, I'm a four-pitch pitcher.

"I've got to use all my pitches. I don't have an overpowering fastball," added Oquist, who nevertheless has averaged nearly a NTC strikeout per inning throughout his career, maintaining a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Oquist regrouped to go 6-1 over the rest of his second season at Rochester. This year, he was the last pitcher cut in spring training, although Orioles manager Johnny Oates figured he would see Oquist back in Baltimore before long.

"I remember the first time I saw Mike in spring training of '92 against St. Louis," Oates recalled. "He came into a ballgame from the bullpen. Chuck Carr was on second, and we put a pickoff play on. He got the sign, acknowledged it, set, turned and picked him off second. That made a statement to me about his composure. We've got veteran pitchers who don't pay enough attention to get a pickoff sign. They'll miss it, or they won't execute it.

"Mike doesn't have any one pitch that's unbelievable, but he has four good pitches and he has shown command of all of them. Control is throwing strikes. Command is throwing them where you want to. I'm excited for him. He's the type of guy who will accept this challenge and do well."

Orioles closer Lee Smith, a 15-year veteran who is headed for the Hall of Fame, has seen his share of young pitchers come and go. Smith likes what he sees in Oquist.

"A lot of kids are nervous when they go out there. He doesn't look scared. He shows a lot of poise," Smith said. "He pitches inside, he uses both sides of the plate, he has four pitches and he throws all of them no matter what the count is. He has to keep doing that or he'll be back at Rochester."

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