Coppinger handles Jays' challenge, 7-4 Kid at heart, but vet on mound, rookie goes strong 6 for third win

Anderson hits 28th homer

Oriole K's Carter twice, can't wait to tell folks

July 02, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- On one hand, Rocky Coppinger is 22, an age when being called a kid still seems natural, and he still can't wait to tell his parents how he struck out All-Star outfielder Joe Carter.

On the other hand, Coppinger is 6 feet 5, weighs around 260 pounds, will never be carded at a movie theater again, and possesses what many veteran pitchers never possess: Mound presence. The infielders behind him watch the Orioles rookie challenge hitters with great stuff, maintain his poise and work aggressively, catch and fire, catch and fire, and they like what they see.

Coppinger pitched six strong innings yesterday and the Orioles beat the Toronto Blue Jays, 7-4, with Coppinger becoming the first Orioles rookie to win his first three decisions since Allan Ramirez in 1983.

Brady Anderson became the first major-leaguer to hit 28 homers, crushing a two-run shot into the fourth deck of SkyDome. Bobby Bonilla and Mark Smith also homered for the Orioles, who, with closer Randy Myers on the mound, survived a brief scare in the ninth to win for the third time in the last four games.

Coppinger's three victories are two less than he should have, by all rights. He has no complete games, but the Orioles have always led when he's been relieved in his five starts.

Pitching against Kansas City on June 21, Coppinger led 4-0 when a liner off his ankle forced him out in the fourth inning. Five days later in Texas, Coppinger departed -- against his will -- with a 5-1 advantage, and the bullpen botched that.

He is, manager Davey Johnson said, a throwback, a big, hard-throwing guy who "just tells the hitters, 'Let's go, here it comes, if you can hit it, then you'll beat me.' But for such a big, hard-throwing guy, he has really good command."

B. J. Surhoff said: "He works nice and fast. He gets the ball and goes, no messing around."

Cal Ripken said: "You've got to be impressed by what you see. He's got a lot of talent, and his [composure] is better than I expected. . . . He does not seem to be in awe of situations, and he goes out and pitches with confidence."

Coppinger is one of those guys, Ripken said, who in "our minds" is going to stick in the majors.

Toronto welcomes a second chance at Coppinger, because the first time around, on Canada's Independence Day, he made the best of the Jays look very bad.

His mechanics were a mess in the first inning or two, but when Coppinger returned to the dugout between innings, he and coach Pat Dobson sat down and talked about what he was

doing wrong. By the third inning, Coppinger had corrected the mistakes.

(The Orioles' staff loves this, his aptitude and intelligence. When preparing for Detroit, he was asked if he had faced any Tigers hitters before. Sure, he said, remembering some long ago battles in the minors, and proceeded to recount, pitch by pitch, how he tried to get those hitters out.)

Carter came up with a runner on first and two outs in the third inning. Coppinger got a second strike with his changeup, Carter swinging weakly, and then finished off Carter with a slider away.

"His slider must've been good and tight [in its spin] today," Johnson said, "because you had a lot of hitters taking [weak] swings. They must not have been able to differentiate it from the fastball."

Carter came up again in the sixth, and Coppinger struck him out again. Coppinger failed to stifle a grin afterward. "I've got something to talk about when I call my family tonight," he said.

Carter said: "He pitched me two different ways. The second time he struck me out on a hanging slider, so it's just having not seen the guy that's a problem for me. Advantage to him.

"He was like a veteran, in that he struggled the first couple of innings and then pitched better."

Sandy Martinez had homered in the fifth inning, and leading off the seventh, John Olerud hit the first of two homers, and Coppinger called catcher Chris Hoiles to the mound and gave some sort of indication that he was getting tired.

With the rookie's pitch count at 110, that was enough for $H Johnson. As he has in virtually all of his starts, Coppinger resisted. "I went out there," Johnson said, "and he was shaking his head back and forth."

But that was all, Coppinger having allowed four hits and two walks over six-plus innings. Mission accomplished. Before the end of the year, advance scouts will find some weaknesses and hitters will adjust to him and he may get hit hard. "But he's got a chance to be a pretty good pitcher," said Dobson. "He's the real deal."

Several hours after the game, Coppinger was told, during an interview on WBAL, that his next start is expected to come against another big, hard-throwing Texan: Boston's Roger Clemens, his hero.

After several moments of silence Coppinger said, "Oh my God."

Something else to tell the folks back in El Paso.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site: SkyDome, Toronto

Time: 7: 35

TV/Radio: Ch. 13, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (4-6, 4.88) vs. Jays' Paul Quantrill (4-8, 5.88)

Pub Date: 7/02/96

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