O's look to sinker to put Erickson on the rise again

July 24, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

He was another Mike Mussina in the beginning.

In his first two-plus years in the big leagues, pitching for the Minnesota Twins, Scott Erickson had a 34-14 record. He was barely out of college, and he threw this terrific fastball that dropped like a rock. He was headed for the top of the society of pitchers.

During the 1991 season, in which he won 20 games, he was rated the second-best pitcher in the American League by Baseball America, behind only Roger Clemens. He finished second to Clemens in the Cy Young Award balloting that year. He was 23 years old.

Three and a half years later, the Orioles' new starter is still young at 27, and still throws hard, yet he has become one of the game's great mysteries instead of one of its great pitchers.

What has happened to Scott Erickson? It is a mystery with clues, but no solutions.

This much is certain: Since that 34-14 start, Erickson is 30-47 with an ERA almost two points higher. He was pulverized throughout the 1993 season, finishing with 19 losses and a 5.19 ERA. He threw a no-hitter against Cleveland last year, suggesting he still possessed powerful stuff, yet only two pitchers in the league had more losses when the strike ended the season.

The Orioles had to give the Twins only two average prospects to acquire Erickson earlier this month. The notion that he still might be the second-best pitcher in the league? Long ago forgotten.

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He stood in front of his locker one day recently at Camden Yards, answering questions politely but crisply, clearly looking forward to the end of the interview. It's what happens to players when their numbers fall off drastically.

"People ask me what has happened," Erickson said, "but I haven't changed one thing about the way I pitch."

So, what is his solution to the mystery? He shrugged. "I give 110 percent every time out," he said. "Things don't work out all the time in this game."

Could it be that simple? Could it be that Erickson's slide is attributable simply to the random whims of a game that sometimes defies explanation?

Try again, says one highly accomplished pitching detective.

"He still has great stuff," Jim Palmer said, "but he needs to get back to the way he used to pitch. He has changed his approach."

According to Palmer, the Erickson of '91 relied almost completely on his anchor pitch, his powerful, sinking fastball. The Erickson of the past few years, Palmer said, relies more on other pitches, such as a slider.

"If you have a great pitch, throw it," Palmer said. "He still throws the ball well. In and out. Both sides of the plate. There's a lot to work with."

The Twins agree that they changed Erickson's style after 1991. But they say they had no choice.

The debate traces back to a strained elbow Erickson suffered during his 20-win season in 1991. He had won 12 straight games when he went on the disabled list in late June. His velocity dropped when he returned, the Twins said. They began trying to teach him to rely on other pitches. Erickson balked at the idea.

Even during the '91 playoffs and World Series, in which Erickson made three shaky starts, he was in disagreement with his manager over how much he should rely on his fastball.

The coolness that developed between Erickson, Twins manager Tom Kelly and pitching coach Dick Such never eased. Never again would they agree on how he should pitch.

Four years later, Erickson still all but barks at the notion that he has lost velocity.

"The [radar] gun doesn't say so," he said. "If anything, I throw harder now than I did then."

The Orioles agree. They think they can fix what ailed him the last few years: by, as Palmer suggested, going back to a steady supply of those sinking fastballs.

In his first start with the Orioles in Chicago on July 9, an 11-2 win, Erickson threw so many fastballs that Cal Ripken mentioned it to him afterward. "He told me he'd never seen me throw so many," Erickson said. "I can still pitch that way."

Thinking you can undo another organization's mistakes is one of baseball's great temptations, a mistake every team has made many times. As often as not, you find out that you can't undo

what has happened, that the player and not the coaching is the problem, that you were arrogant to think you knew what someone else didn't.

But sometimes you do.

The Orioles think they do this time.

"There are a few things we can do with him," manager Phil Regan said. "We think he can still be a terrific pitcher."

Maybe he can be. It certainly will help him to pitch on the grass at Camden Yards instead of on artificial turf at the Metrodome. Batters tend to pound his pitches into the ground; balls that would have gone though on the carpet will travel slowly enough on grass for the infielders to get them. His career ERA is almost a point lower on grass than on carpet.

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