Rocky I no knockout, but Coppinger should get a sequel

June 12, 1996|By John Eisenberg

DETROIT -- Someone asked if he were nervous at the start of the game.

L "You didn't see me out there shaking?" Rocky Coppinger said.

He was the winning pitcher in his first major-league start last night at Tiger Stadium, but his performance was less than winning.

He threw 99 pitches in five innings, juggled a multitude of base runners, allowed five runs, and watched one of his pitches bounce off the upper-deck facade.

"I thought I'd have better command," he said. "I made some stupid pitches -- rookie mistakes."

In other words, on a night when the Orioles wanted magic from their best pitching prospect, they had to settle for a variation of the unpleasant theme that their other starters are playing this year.

Not that the news was all bad. Coppinger struck out five, pitched aggressively and kept the ball down.

"He threw strikes and mixed it up," manager Davey Johnson said. "He was one hitter away from getting hooked [early], but I thought he looked pretty good."

Good enough to warrant another start? Sure. Coppinger wasn't The Savior, but he was no worse than David Wells, Jimmy Haynes, Scott Erickson or Mike Mussina have been lately. Why )) not give him the ball again?

But was he good enough to assure the Orioles that they didn't err in promoting him at age 22 instead of letting him incubate a little longer at Rochester? Uh, no.

The truth, of course, is that they still don't know whether they erred, and they might not know for a while.

"One of the toughest decisions in the game is knowing when the timing is right on [promoting] a pitching prospect like this," assistant general manager Kevin Malone said last night during

batting practice. "Because you want to make sure he is ready when he gets here, and there is no way of knowing for sure."

The Orioles thought Coppinger was ready. As desperate as they are for starting pitching, they had evidence in support of their opinion. He had begun to dominate at Rochester after a slow start. And even though he was still in Class A as recently as last year, he threw 326 innings in the minors before getting called up.

That's many, many more minor-league innings than either Ben McDonald (71) or Mussina (177) threw before becoming full-time major-leaguers, and it's almost as many as perennial prospect ,, Arthur Rhodes (350).

In other words, Coppinger wasn't a neophyte when he stepped to the mound last night.

"He's a very, very mature young man," Malone said.

"For me, it wasn't a tough decision to bring him up," Johnson said. "He has command of two pitches he can throw for strikes. That's the major-league criteria for any young pitcher."

Of course, it's easy for the manager of a high-priced, struggling, pitching-poor club to see the value in bringing up the organization's best pitching prospect. That's known as immediate gratification. But there can be consequences.

McDonald, remember, was rushed to the majors and became a .500 pitcher. Mussina was ready. Rhodes? His story most closely resembles Coppinger's, and it is a cautionary tale.

Rhodes was the same age and had thrown about the same number of pro innings when the Orioles brought him up in July 1992, looking for The Savior. Rhodes went 4-0 in his first five starts, including a shutout of the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. But then he began to struggle, and he is still struggling four years later. "Arthur didn't learn how to pitch [in the minors]," Mike Flanagan said last week.

In other words, it takes a lot more than one night, good or bad, to determine whether a 22-year-old is ready for the major leagues as Mussina was, or not ready as Rhodes was not.

"We really analyzed the Coppinger situation, discussed it almost daily," Malone said. "There's always doubt. But your confidence outweighs your doubt.

"The best-case scenario is that he never sets foot in the minors again. But even if it doesn't happen, it isn't a bad situation. You look at it as kind of a test. You see where the player is, developmentally."

Where is Coppinger? Hard to tell.

He struck out five, but was hit hard. Two outs in the early innings traveled 400 feet.

"This level is so different from any other," Malone said.

The Tigers' Chris Gomez hadn't hit a homer all season until he took Coppinger deep in the second inning. And the Tigers' Bob (( Higginson hit a huge homer off the third deck in the fifth inning.

L "I was just happy it stayed in the stadium," Coppinger said.

On the other hand, he didn't suffer the knockout punch that the other Orioles starters have been suffering lately. He threw hard and sometimes brilliantly.

"It's a good sign," catcher Chris Hoiles said, "that he threw his fastball for strikes."

These days, that's enough to warrant a chance in the major leagues.

The Orioles are wise to give the ball back to Coppinger and see what happens.

OC Then send him back to Rochester if it turns out he isn't ready.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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