For a backup, Zaun catching lots of work

April 07, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

MINNEAPOLIS -- Gregg Zaun, pinch catcher.

"That sounds all right," Zaun said. "I like 'stopper' better."

Hey, it's his creation.

His, and Davey Johnson's.

The Orioles aren't just winning, they're redefining the way the game is played.

"If Zaunie keeps this up," Chris Hoiles said, "he's got to be in contention for the Rolaids Relief Award."

Zaun, 24, appeared as a late-inning replacement for Hoiles in each of the Orioles' first four games before starting last night against Minnesota.

"Spot starting," he said before going 1-for-3 in the Orioles' 8-3 loss to the Twins.

Most backup catchers play once or twice a week. Zaun entered last night on pace to break Cal Ripken's consecutive-games record -- without ever batting.

Not a bad gig, huh?

Alas, it's only temporary.

"Maybe two or three weeks from now, the situation won't arise as much," bench coach Andy Etchebarren said.

"Hoiles' arm strength keeps getting better. He has come a long way in the last two weeks. He's still not where he wants to be, but he's getting close."

And when Hoiles is full strength, Zaun figures to return to a normal backup role, which will be fine for a former 17th-round draft pick that few expected to reach the majors in the first place.

Johnson is using Bobby Bonilla at DH, so he doesn't have to remove him for defense. It stands to reason that he will want Hoiles' bat available in the late innings as well.

For now, though, Zaun is validating the Orioles' decision to keep him as their backup instead of acquiring another catcher. And Hoiles is playing the good soldier, however frustrating it might be.

"If that's what Davey wants to do, if he feels that will benefit the team, he's the manager, and I'll go along with what he wants," Hoiles said. "It's his decision. I'm not going to tell him it's wrong."

Indeed, Hoiles knows as well as anyone that Zaun helped save a game Friday night, throwing out Paul Molitor on an attempted steal of third in the eighth inning of a 2-1 victory.

Johnson actually wanted to insert Zaun an inning earlier, after Hoiles hit a sacrifice fly to give the Orioles the lead. But he wound up arguing when Cal Ripken got thrown out at the plate to end the inning, and forgot to make the change.

It nearly became an issue when the Twins put runners on first and third with two out -- a potential base-stealing situation. But reliever Roger McDowell escaped the jam, and Johnson avoided any embarrassment.

"I was a little mad at myself," he said. "I messed up."

Think Phil Regan would have admitted his mistake? How about Johnny Oates? Johnson has no such worries about his job security. His team has an aura that was missing in seasons past, and a lighter side, too.

Take the 3-2 changeup Randy Myers threw Dave Hollins for strike three to end Friday night's game. It was an unusual pitch selection, to say the least, and Johnson joked that it only could have been concocted by Zaun and Myers.

"That shows you how messed up they are," Johnson said, shaking his head at the antics of his late-inning specialists. "Zaunie called for it. And Myers thought it was a hell of a call."

Zaun, the nephew of former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey, has always been different. He arrived at his first spring training in 1993, a 165-pound waif. That didn't stop him from proclaiming, "I'm going to 'The Show.' "

"I don't think anybody took me seriously from the time I got drafted," Zaun said. "I was so small, I really honestly don't think anybody expected me to get here."

Well, he did, adding 20 pounds of bulk, overcoming a miserable '94 season in Rochester, batting .260 in limited playing time last season. He's that rarest of breeds, a switch-hitting catcher. He might stay in the game 10 years.

The Orioles talked about adding Randy Knorr. They talked about adding Lenny Webster. General manager Pat Gillick said it wasn't a slap at Zaun, merely a desire to increase the club's depth.

Whatever, everyone seems content now.

"I'm a major-league player," Zaun said. "I have no doubt about that. I don't think they should, either. "


"It's fun. I like it," Zaun said. "If you can't start every day, it's nice to be in the ballgame a couple of innings a day."

"I've been fortunate I haven't caught any at-bats at the end of games. That's a role I'm unfamiliar with -- hitting late in the ballgame when I haven't played."

Last night, he started against right-hander Brad Radke, in part because he's familiar with Jimmy Haynes, in part because Johnson wants to play Hoiles against left-hander Rich Robertson today.

Zaun's consecutive-games streak is on the line.

Now the big question:

Is it possible for a catcher to get a save?

"We'll have to come up with a new stat for him," said Mike Flanagan, the former major-league pitcher who is now an Orioles broadcaster. "He's got to get a hold or something, just like a reliever."

He can catch. He can throw. He's in "The Show."

Gregg Zaun, pinch catcher.

Pub Date: 4/07/96

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