New characters add good twist to bullpen plot

June 10, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Phil Regan sounded dumbfounded.

"It was kind of nice to manage with a bullpen like that," he said. "Each guy did the job you set him up to do. Tonight, it was fun."

Fun is a lead that grows instead of shrinks. Fun is a five-homer night instead of a late-inning collapse.

Look, Ma, a bullpen!

Relievers who throw strikes!

Mark Lee escaped a jam in the sixth and pitched a scoreless seventh. Terry Clark worked a scoreless eighth, Doug Jones a scoreless ninth.

Was that so difficult?

Orioles 10, California 4.

Alan Mills warmed up, but got his second straight day off, another miracle. Tonight, he can swap roles with Clark, who worked the past two games.

Who knows?

Maybe now the Orioles finally will get hot.

A team shouldn't need to overhaul its bullpen with the season nearly one-fourth complete, but better late than never.

Here's everything you need to know about how badly Armando Benitez and Brad Pennington damaged the bullpen.

When Clark worked the ninth inning Thursday, it was a turning point not just for the bullpen, but for the entire team.

Before, Regan might have used Mills in that spot -- "I guarantee he would have been [warming] up," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said.

He certainly would have used Mills last night, when Lee replaced Scott Klingenbeck with a man on second, one out in the sixth and the Orioles leading, 5-4.

Yes, things had gotten so bad, Regan didn't trust Benitez and Pennington to throw strikes in the ninth inning of a rout, much less the middle innings of a close game.

Mills warmed up or pitched in 19 of the Orioles' 21 games before Clark and Lee were promoted, and his inconsistency this season reflects his excessive workload.

Clark and Lee can't be any worse than Benitez and Pennington. And if Mills finally comes around, the bullpen will be that much better.

Throwing strikes is a start. Throwing strikes makes the game easier. Throwing strikes gets the defense involved.

"It's come up in a few discussions," Lee said, smiling. "Strikes will help."

Lee and Clark were given adjoining lockers in the Orioles' clubhouse. They sat in folding chairs afterward, relaxing.

"That's what we do, we just throw strikes," Clark said. "We don't have 95-mph fastballs, we have average fastballs. We just . . . . "

"Locate," Lee said, completing the thought.

"Locate and try not to go 3-2," Clark added.

It's obvious now that the Orioles took too much of a gamble opening the season with three unproven relievers -- Benitez, Pennington and Mike Oquist.

Pennington and Oquist were out of options, but that's no excuse. The front office should have assembled a more reliable bullpen to get its first-year manager off to a better start.

Indeed, the Orioles now acknowledge the mistake of failing to replace veteran setup man Mark Eichhorn, who underwent rotator cuff surgery in February and might be out for the season.

"We underestimated the value of losing Eichhorn," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said. "He gave you innings, he kept you in ballgames. We could have used a veteran-type guy."

Instead, they had Benitez, a pitcher who entered the season with three games of experience above Double A, a pitcher whose immaturity was well-known within the organization.

He succeeded for a time, then stopped throwing strikes.

"A lot was tossed upon him," said California closer Lee Smith, who became Benitez's mentor last season with the Orioles.

"He's only 22 years old. They have big expectations of the team here. It was a tough spot."

And when he struggled, it limited Regan's options.

Doug Jones is the closer, Jesse Orosco the late-inning specialist, Oquist the 11th pitcher on the staff. Jamie Moyer is in the rotation. Pennington . . . . are you kidding?.

That left Mills.

"That's why guys get overworked," Regan said. "That's what probably happened to Alan Mills. It's not so much the innings pitched. But you want to go to him, you have confidence in him, you get him up a lot. That tires him out as much as anything."

Mills declined to comment -- no pitcher will dare speak out now, not after the way the manager unloaded on Pennington -- but Flanagan concurred with Regan's assessment.

"It's a chain reaction on the bullpen -- that's what my biggest concern was," Flanagan said. "That might be what determined it for Benitez and Pennington as much as anything."

It turns out that former manager Johnny Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman were right about Pennington -- not in their handling of him, but in their overall evaluation.

Benitez, though, is hardly a lost cause.

"I really feel for him," Smith said. "I looked forward to coming back and seeing him here. I talked to him every day they were out there [in California].

"Going down and gaining confidence will be good for him. He has the stuff to be a closer, a really good one."

Benitez wasn't ready, Pennington didn't belong.

Clark and Lee will help.

Clark and Lee throw strikes.

HEAVY WORKLOAD

Innings pitched don't always reflect the way relievers are used. Alan Mills warmed up or pitched in 19 of the Orioles' 21 games from May 16 to June 7.

May 16: Pitched 1 2/3 innings

May 17: Warmed up once

May 18: Up twice

May 19: Pitched 1 2/3 innings

May 20: Up once

May 21: Up 3 times

May 22: Orioles off

May 23: Mills off

May 24: Pitched 2/3 of an inning

May 25: Pitched 2/3 of an inning

May 26: Up once

May 27: Pitched 3 1/3 innings

May 28: Mills off

May 29: Up once

May 30: Pitched 1/3 of an inning

May 31: Up once

June 1: Orioles off

June 2: Up once

June 3: Up twice

June 4: Pitched, 3 batters, no outs

June 5: Up once

June 6: Pitched 1 inning

June 7: Pitched 2/3 of an inning

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