Little catcher helps make colossus of Rhodes

June 26, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Now we know why Arthur Rhodes kept returning to Triple-A. He was scouting a catcher, that's all.

Steve Carlton had Tim McCarver.

Rhodes has Greg Zaun.

All right, we're getting carried away, but what the heck, so was manager Phil Regan yesterday after the Orioles' 10-1 victory over Boston.

"I think this can get him over the hump, I really do," Regan said after Rhodes matched his career high with nine strikeouts in eight innings.

Arthur over the hump? We've heard it before. But this time might be different. This time, Rhodes might actually be on his way.

Regan told him Thursday to learn the opposing hitters.

Check.

Pitching coach Mike Flanagan told him to quicken his pace.

Check.

Zaun told him to keep his arm up and stay on the mound.

Check, check!

"If I were you guys, I'd be looking for more of the same from him," Zaun told reporters afterward. "He's going to figure it out. He's on his way."

Hey, we can trust Zaunie.

He has been in the big leagues now, oh, a total of seven days.

Seriously, if this is the way Rhodes pitches when Zaun is catching, then more power to the Little Demper.

Heck, no one else could figure out Rhodes.

"I told him, 'If you want to get 10 years in the big leagues, it would behoove you to get in good with Rhodes and [Armando] Benitez,' " Flanagan said.

Zaun is no dummy.

He'll carry Rhodes' luggage, if that's what it takes.

1% Why, the two are well acquainted.

Rhodes has made 34 starts for the Orioles the past three seasons, and 25 for Rochester. Zaun knows him almost as well as Chris Hoiles.

Rhodes said he enjoys throwing to Zaun because he offers such a low target. Upon hearing that, Zaun immediately volunteered for the starring role in "Honey, I Shrunk the Catcher."

"It's easy to keep the ball low throwing to me -- I'm only about three inches tall," said Zaun, who actually is 5 feet 10. "The umpire [Dan Morrison] told me he was getting a real good look at the strike zone, because I'm so short."

Whatever, Rhodes was a different pitcher yesterday -- the pitcher who threw back-to-back shutouts last August, not the pitcher who routinely infuriates his pitching coach and manager.

What if he maintains this? What if Kevin Brown and Ben McDonald return from injuries sooner than expected? What if Mike Mussina goes on his annual tear?

Hmmm.

The Orioles might not be so bad off.

Nine strikeouts, two walks -- it was the best single-game ratio of Rhodes' career. He struck out each of the first three Boston hitters twice. And the best part was, most of the strikeouts came on sliders.

The slider and the changeup, Rhodes had both working. Regan was delighted that he threw a 3-2 change to Jose Canseco in the second inning. It didn't matter that Canseco walked. It was the thought that counted.

For once, Rhodes threw strikes, first-pitch strikes, breaking-pitch strikes, strikes and more strikes. It's critical for any pitcher to get ahead in the count. But for Rhodes, it's absolutely imperative.

When he got ahead 0-1 yesterday, the Red Sox were 1-for-15 with six strikeouts and no walks. When he fell behind 1-0, they were 4-for-11 with three strikeouts and two walks -- and one of the hits was a Canseco home run.

Obviously, it helped that the Orioles gave him a 7-0 lead after three innings, but the point is, Rhodes pitched instead of threw. In the past, he might have lost his command after a 37-minute rain delay.

Not this time.

"The rain delay was the best thing that could have happened to him," Flanagan said. "It took the edge off. He knew he could not go back out 100 percent physically. He had to pitch."

Regan indicated before the game that Rhodes is through at Triple-A, claiming "he has mastered that league." The trick now is for Rhodes to develop an idea of how to shut down major-league hitters consistently.

To that end, Regan handed him a Red Sox roster at the start of the series, and told him to study the hitters carefully. "Arthur needs to know how he's going to pitch," Regan said. "Then he needs to execute a game plan."

To Regan, everything else is in place. Rhodes' delivery is smoother now, more compact. He's holding runners better. And he's working at a brisker pace, the better to maintain his rhythm and keep his defense alert.

"It seemed like the innings went by so fast today, I didn't know it," Rhodes said.

Oh, he'll still wander off the mound after making a bad pitch or giving up a base hit. The difference now is, Zaun will order him right back to the mound.

"I'm somewhere between stroking and yelling," Zaun said.

Whatever you say, Little Demper.

+ Or is that Little McCarver?

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