Erickson set for solid year, O's say Sinker, command fit surroundings

March 21, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - All the ingredients are in place for Orioles right-hander Scott Erickson. He has the great sinking fastball that hitters will beat into the thick grass of Camden Yards, and he has the sure-handed infielders behind him who will turn those ground balls into double plays.

The Orioles turned four double plays in a 6-5 exhibition victory over the Florida Marlins yesterday, and, oh yes, a triple play. With runners on first and second in the third inning, Orioles third baseman Manny Alexander fielded a hard chopper hit by Marlins right fielder Gary Sheffield, stepped on third, threw to second to Roberto Alomar, who stepped on second and threw to first, a 5-4-3 triple-killing. Alomar also threw a runner out at the plate, on a relay from right field.

All the ingredients in place for Erickson, who is pitching extremely well in training camp and is poised, many in the organization believe, to have a great season.

"I think he could win 16 or 17 games," said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "He's a good pitcher, pitching with confidence again. He's playing with a good infield behind him. He doesn't have to worry about the artificial surface, the Metrodome."

The artificial surface that turned ground balls into hits was left behind when the Minnesota Twins traded him to the Orioles last July 7. In 1991, Erickson's first full season in the majors, he won 20 games for Minnesota. But his results regressed steadily, his ERA climbing to 3.40 to 5.19 to 5.44, and at the time of the deal, Erickson was 4-6 with a 5.95 ERA.

After he joined the Orioles, however, Erickson's season and, seemingly, his career turned around. In less than three months with the Orioles, he went 9-4 with a 3.89 ERA. In September alone, Erickson went 4-0 with four complete games and a 1.47 ERA. All the ingredients were coming together.

"I don't think I threw the ball a whole lot different [for the Orioles]," Erickson said. "Plays were being made, runs were being scored."

Plays will be made with the Orioles, with Alomar and Cal Ripken and Palmeiro. Batting against Erickson last year, opponents averaged 2.53 grounders for every fly ball; that's twice the major-league average of 1.27. More than most pitchers, Erickson benefits from having a strong infield around him.

"Fortunately, this is a really good group behind me," said Erickson, who was heartened by the off-season news that the Orioles had signed Alomar. "He's a great second baseman, one of the best in the league. When [the club] is putting guys like that behind you, you've got to be happy about it."

Erickson had perhaps his poorest outing of spring training yesterday, his fastball not as overpowering as it has been Erickson had a 1.13 ERA in four starts prior to facing the Marlins, with only 15 hits and two walks allowed in 16 innings.

Pitching effectively without your best stuff, pitching coach Pat Dobson said, is a trait of good pitchers, and that's what Erickson did vs. Florida. He got hit around in the first inning, allowing two runs, and subsequently he relied more and more on his sinker, getting the ground balls and the double plays and the triple play when he most needed them.

Erickson, 28, allowed one unearned run in his last four innings of work, and required a modest total of 65 pitches over five innings.

"He knows he's a ground ball pitcher," said Dobson. "He works at throwing ground balls. He knows when a ground ball is going to help him more than a strikeout, and he's constantly trying to keep the ball down."

Dobson and manager Davey Johnson agree that Erickson could have a big year for the Orioles this year.

"The biggest thing he's shown me this spring," Dobson said, "is his command of all his pitches [a slider and a changeup, besides his sinking fastball]. He's been getting strike one with the first pitch pretty well. If he does that, he's got a chance to have a very good year."

Johnson said, "No question about it. Here's a guy who can throw a lot of ground balls, and with Robbie Alomar and Cal, they can be double plays."

All the ingredients are in place for right-hander Scott Erickson, trying to put it all together in 1996.

Pub Date: 3/21/96

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