Valenzuela accepts pitch from Phillies

June 28, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- Fernando Valenzuela arrived at Veterans Stadium yesterday, an Orioles equipment bag over his shoulder and his major-league career back under way.

The Philadelphia Phillies needed a starting pitcher, just as the Orioles did in the spring of 1993, and they found one pitching effectively in Mexico, just as the Orioles did. The only question is whether they will get the Fernando Valenzuela who was American League Pitcher of the Month last July or the one who ran out of gas in August.

"I think people will be pleasantly surprised," said agent Tony DeMarco, who accompanied Valenzuela to Philadelphia yesterday.

Valenzuela was in the midst of a very successful season with Jalisco of the Mexican League when he got the call. He was 10-3 with a 2.67 ERA -- better stats than he had when the Orioles "discovered" him at last year's Caribbean Series -- but apparently not good enough to rekindle their interest.

"I'm just happy to be here with the Phillies," Valenzuela said. "I'm just hoping to help this team. I just want to do my best."

He won't have to wait long for his chance. He is scheduled to make his first National League appearance in five years tonight when he faces the Florida Marlins at Veterans Stadium.

The Phillies, struggling to stay alive in the tough NL East, could use a little magic. They are nine games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves and desperate for some consistency from their starting rotation, so a touch of Fernandomania probably wouldn't hurt.

If he cannot resurrect it tonight, there is always Sunday, when he is scheduled to pitch at Dodger Stadium for the first time since 1990. He will be returning to the site of his greatest success and his emergence as an international superstar, but Valenzuela attempted to play down the connection during a news conference held in his honor before last night's game.

"If I come up in the rotation, I'll be ready," he said. "I spent over 10 years with the Dodgers, but I'm hoping to start a new career in red."

The Orioles are looking for some help at the far end of the starting rotation, too, but general manager Roland Hemond decided to stay in-house this time, even though he had said in spring training that he wouldn't rule out a midseason return engagement for Valenzuela.

There was no real interest in retaining the 33-year-old left-hander last winter, but the Orioles did offer him salary arbitration to keep their options open. He declined, so the club was not eligible to re-sign him until May 1.

There were no hard feelings.

"The Orioles gave me a second chance to pitch in the major leagues and they kept me all year," Valenzuela said. "I didn't have much work early in the season and that didn't help me because my arm needs to pitch, but Johnny Oates told me that I wasn't going to pitch a lot during the early part of the season."

This time, he will enter the starting rotation in full stride. He made 17 starts for Jalisco, most recently going five innings on Friday in Vera Cruz.

The Phillies had to go that far to find pitching help because it has become nearly impossible to pull off a trade for a front-line starting pitcher. The possibility of a players strike has had a chilling effect on trade discussions and the six-division format has kept almost every team at least theoretically in contention.

"Nobody has been talking," Phillies manager Jim Fregosi said. "I don't think [realignment] has anything to do with it. I think the impending strike has a lot more to do with it."

The acquisition of Valenzuela figures to be a no-lose proposition, since the Phillies didn't have to pay a lot for his services and they didn't have to give up anyone to get him.

It figures to be a last chance for Valenzuela, who is making his third comeback attempt since he was released by the Dodgers in the spring of 1991.

"I think this will be the last one," Valenzuela said. "I sure hope so."

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