Rhodes finds niche, gets his due

June 07, 1996|By John Eisenberg

Arthur Rhodes was coming in from the outfield during batting practice last night at Camden Yards when he crossed paths with Cecil Fielder.

Fielder, the Tigers' immense first baseman, stopped and shook hands with Rhodes, who had struck him out in the eighth inning the night before.

"Man," Fielder said, shaking his head, "you're throwing about nine million."

Meaning nine million miles per hour.

As Rhodes laughed, Fielder turned to David Wells, the former Tiger and current Oriole, standing nearby.

"That was the best fastball I've seen all year," Fielder told Wells.

High praise.

At long last, Rhodes is earning it.

After treading through the first half of the '90s as the Orioles' eternally failed prospect, Rhodes is delivering as a relief pitcher at age 26.

His 6-0 record is almost as surprising as his new aptitude for consistently hitting the outside corner. And his high 5.46 ERA is misleading, skewed by two bad outings; eight of his 12 relief appearances have been scoreless, and all but two have been effective.

"I'm getting into this," Rhodes said in the clubhouse last night. "I'm starting to like it."

With his transformation into a relief pitcher not even a year old, his improvement and his 90 mph fastball beg an obvious question: Is he a closer in the making?

"I think he could be a dominant closer in the long run," said Mike Flanagan of Home Team Sports, who, as the Orioles' pitching coach in '95, first sold Rhodes on the idea of pitching out of the bullpen.

The Orioles don't need a closer right now with Randy Myers pitching so well in the first year of a two-year contract. But what about after that?

"I know people are talking about me becoming a closer on the radio and stuff like that," Rhodes said, "but I'm not thinking about it yet. Not right now."

The notion of Rhodes as a closer was laughable for years. He was much too wild and inconsistent as a starter for any manager even to consider inserting him into the ninth inning of a close game.

He tantalized the front office every spring and pitched himself out of the rotation every summer.

"No one was more frustrated about it than me," Rhodes said. "It's no fun knowing you're not performing as well as you can."

Said Flanagan: "I don't think he was ready to be a starter in the major leagues, which was the result of him being rushed through the minor leagues without learning how to pitch. He didn't throw four pitches [in a row] alike."

When Rhodes' annual demotion to the bullpen took place last July, Flanagan tried to spin it differently.

"It had always been a negative for him," Flanagan said. "I told him I thought he could excel in the bullpen with his stuff. He came to me after three weeks and said he liked it."

Yet he still struggled in the role, then experienced pain in his left shoulder in August and wound up having surgery to repair torn cartilage. The Orioles didn't have big plans for him this season.

But now he has blossomed just as he was beginning to resemble a lost cause. His totals of 13 walks and 41 strikeouts in 29 2/3 innings tell all.

Finally, he has the control to match the blast in his fastball.

"It used to be that I just couldn't consistently hit that outside corner," Rhodes said. "Now I feel like I can put it low and away whenever I want. It's just a matter of maturing and getting my mechanics together."

Manager Davey Johnson succumbed to temptation, as Rhodes' managers always do, and put him back in the rotation for a couple of games in May. But the experiment wasn't a success, and there won't be another.

"Arthur is pitching great where he is," Johnson said. "Why move him?"

Indeed, it would be a mistake to move him now that he is experiencing the success he so desperately needed.

"It feels great to be able to prove myself and get guys out," Rhodes said.

But that doesn't mean the club shouldn't look hard at him as a closer in a couple of years.

He isn't consistent enough yet for the role, but the arc of his career is strikingly similar to that of Jose Mesa.

Mesa, of course, was another hard-throwing starter who failed with the Orioles and Indians before becoming an All-Star when the Indians made him a closer.

Mesa's success isn't complicated: He just steps up and blows people away with his fastball.

Rhodes has the potential to do the same in the same role.

"He's unhittable when he is on," Flanagan said.

In a perfect two-inning performance Tuesday night, he went strikeout, strikeout, pop-up against the heart of the Tigers' order with the score tied in the eighth inning.

"He looked like he was throwing 200 miles an hour," Tigers manager Buddy Bell said.

"He was unhittable," Flanagan said.

Rhodes smiled at the compliments a day later, but shrugged. Years of struggle will do that to you.

"I'm not trying to blow anyone away," he said. "I'm just trying to do my job."

He is, at last.

Is he ever.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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