Smith isn't automatic, but past says as much


August 04, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

Remember when Jamie Moyer had trouble getting anybody out in the first inning? His problem now is finding anybody to get somebody out in the ninth inning.

The way things are going for Lee Smith and the Orioles these days, Moyer's best bet might be himself. That's a conclusion the left-hander and manager Johnny Oates may have to mutually determine.

Moyer's track record indicates he's vulnerable in the early and late innings, but things have gotten out of hand lately. When Smith was unable to protect a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning yesterday, it marked the sixth time this season that Moyer left a game with a lead and got nothing but a "nice try" for his effort.

He has pitched into the seventh inning 18 times in 22 starts, a degree of consistency matched by only a few starters in the major leagues. On seven of those occasions he was still pitching in the eighth inning.

Clearly, the theory of "getting into the seventh or eighth" isn't working in Moyer's case. Otherwise his victory count would be in double figures rather than a mere four. Just as clearly, this has not been the year for closers.

However, before the bridge-jumpers take control, Smith and Oates deserve a defense. Smith has given the Orioles even more than they had a right to expect when they signed him as a free agent last winter.

The club was looking for somebody to provide 30-plus saves, which Smith has done. His total of six blown saves gives him an 84 percent success ratio, only slightly below his 87 percent of a year ago, when he had 46 saves in 53 opportunities with the Cardinals (43-for-50) and Yankees (3-for-3).

The problem is that in neither season has Smith displayed the kind of stuff that warranted such extended use. He had a 4.50 ERA and allowed 11 home runs in 50 innings for St. Louis last year. With the Orioles, his ERA has risen steadily since his phenomenal start and is now 3.22, well above accepted standards for a closer.

Why, then, should Smith almost automatically be inserted whenever there is a ninth-inning save situation? Because the way the game is played today, no manager can risk losing games with his ace on the sidelines. That might not suffice as a completely valid reason, but in 1994 it is a fact of baseball life.

Going into this season, the Orioles would've had every reason to believe they'd be in first place at this stage if they had the major-league leader in saves. They do, but they aren't. In fact, their numbers are worse than a year ago.

Yesterday was the ninth time (in 57 games) that the Orioles lost after leading at the end of seven innings. That happened eight times all of last year, and is an indication the setup men have been erratic. Only the Mets (36-10) and Dodgers (37-10) have lost more such games.

The Orioles have now also lost a lead after the eighth inning five times -- something that happened only twice all of last year. Meanwhile, the Yankees, who went into the season without a bona fide closer and still don't have one, are 56-3 when leading after the seventh inning.

That accounts for most of the difference between the two teams in the standings -- and maybe the best evidence yet to support those who claim the save is baseball's most overrated statistic.

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