'Sid Sez': He likes the NL better

August 11, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

PHILADELPHIA -- So, Jim Fregosi, tell us the difference in Sid Fernandez.

"Me," the Philadelphia manager deadpanned.

Not increased arm strength? Not the return to the National League? Not the advice of Phillies pitching coach Johnny Podres?

"Me," Fregosi deadpanned again.

Allow him to explain.

"I'm sitting in Montreal and we've just acquired Sid Fernandez," Fregosi said. "I'm at an OTB [Off-Track Betting] in Montreal. There's a horse running, 'Sid Sez.' And I bet that horse.

"I hit the trifecta for 200-something. It paid $24-$25. I said, 'That SOB is a winner.' "

Fregosi meant the horse.

He couldn't have meant the pitcher.

Who could have predicted this? Five weeks ago, Fernandez was contemplating retirement. Now, he's the ace of the Phillies.

It's a dubious honor -- the Phils have lost 31 of their past 42 games, turning their five-game lead in the NL East into a 13 1/2 -game deficit.

Still, Fernandez figured to take his $2 million buyout from the Orioles and eat every last pizza in his native Hawaii.

Instead, he's back to the pitcher he was for the New York Mets, the pitcher he was supposed to be in Baltimore.

"He's been absolutely dominant," former Oriole Curt Schilling said.

Dominant as in a .181 opponents' batting average. Dominant as in 43 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings. Dominant as in 2-1 with a 2.76 ERA.

That's two wins in five starts, with Fernandez pitching again tonight against Montreal. Another victory, and he'll be halfway to his American League total.

It's absurd.

And yet, it somehow makes sense.

"He's a fly-ball pitcher," Schilling said, shrugging. "A fly-ball pitcher at Camden Yards is like oil and water."

Schilling never actually pitched at Camden Yards, but based on that comment, perhaps he should be the Orioles' next general manager.

In 1 1/2 seasons with the Orioles, Fernandez allowed 36 homers in 143 1/3 innings. With the Phillies, he has allowed only four in 29 1/3 innings -- and two of those were in his first start.

"I gave up some fly balls my first couple of times here to the [warning] track that in Baltimore probably would have been home runs," Fernandez said.

Looking back, Fernandez admits he never should have changed leagues -- the AL parks are smaller, fastball pitchers are less prominent, the designated hitter bats instead of the pitcher.

The problem is, he didn't have much choice.

Three teams bid on him as a free agent before the 1994 season -- the Orioles, Cleveland and Texas. Fernandez went where the money was. No one anticipated he'd pitch so poorly.

All the Orioles wanted was a left-handed starter to complement Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. Fernandez was 98-79 with a 3.15 ERA in 10 National League seasons. He didn't seem like such a ridiculous idea.

Heck, both the Orioles and Indians pursued Fernandez before Dennis Martinez. And the Indians signed Martinez only after losing Fernandez to Baltimore and Mark Portugal to San Francisco.

The rest, of course, is history -- Fernandez was 6-10 with a 5.59 ERA with the Orioles, and Martinez is 20-8 with a 3.22 ERA since joining the Indians.

The Orioles learned quickly from their mistake -- their next two major pitching acquisitions were sinkerballers Kevin Brown and Scott Erickson.

But they're still paying Fernandez, and the signing could prove even more haunting, considering they also lost a first-round draft pick to the Mets.

The Mets actually received two picks when Fernandez departed as a free agent -- the Orioles' selection at No. 20, and a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds.

With the Orioles' pick, they took Terrence Long, a high school outfielder now in Single-A ball. With the sandwich pick, they took Jay Payton, a top outfield prospect from Georgia Tech.

Indeed, the Orioles could be responsible for two-thirds of the Mets' outfield next season -- Payton in left, and Alex Ochoa, one of two players they traded for Bobby Bonilla, in right.

There's no sense fretting over any of this. If anything, Orioles fans should root for Fernandez, who lost nearly 40 pounds in the off-season, and for all his faults, always tried his best.

Suddenly, his confidence is back, and so is his fastball. Fernandez spent nearly all of June on the disabled list with a shoulder problem. He pitched so poorly, he never could get his arm in shape. His longest start with the Orioles (five innings) matches his shortest with the Phillies.

"I had no arm strength over there," he said. "I'm not going to blast anyone. They gave me a chance at the beginning of the season. I didn't do it. I didn't help my cause by not pitching so well."

How did he turn it around in Philadelphia? For starters, Podres advised him to abandon his cut fastball, a pitch that Dick Bosman and Mike Flanagan wanted him to throw in Baltimore.

"Johnny Podres came up to me and said, 'What is that? I said, 'My cut fastball.' He said, 'It's terrible, don't throw it no more.' He said to get back to the old way I pitched."

And so he has -- 10 strikeouts against St. Louis, nine against Atlanta, 11 against Cincinnati, perhaps the top right-handed hitting team in the NL.

With the Orioles, his fastball rarely registered above 85 mph -- now, he's consistently in the high 80s.

"Let's be honest, he wanted to come back to the National League," Fregosi said. "He had some things to prove to everybody."

"I was here for so long," Fernandez said. "I guess I'm just more comfortable here."

No hard feelings, OK?

Sid Sez.

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