Coppinger rockets past hero in win O's rookie out-duels Clemens for 5 2/3 , goes to 4-0 in 4-3 victory

Palmeiro, Surhoff homer

Red Sox hitters find kid doesn't back down

July 07, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Each time Rocky Coppinger starts, the Orioles win and he generates a new set of stories. Coppinger against the Red Sox yesterday, The Rock against his idol and fellow Texan Roger Clemens, The Rock against Boston's big bashers, The Rock in his sixth major-league start -- call it Rocky VI.

Coppinger (4-0) pitched 5 2/3 innings and beat the Red Sox and Clemens, 4-3, with Rafael Palmeiro and B. J. Surhoff hitting bases-empty homers and Randy Myers pitching the ninth inning for his 18th save.

The Orioles played the last eight innings without second baseman Roberto Alomar, who sprained his left ring finger sliding into first base and may miss a week's worth of games, including the All-Star Game, and also without Bobby Bonilla, ejected in an argument over a called third strike by umpire Derryl Cousins.

The Orioles are 6-0 when Coppinger pitches, and, lest there be any doubt, everybody on the team loves this guy. They love the way he competes and pitches and, above all, that Coppinger is absolutely sure he's going to win. Every time.

"He is not afraid of anybody," said Alomar. "He shows some courage and he shows some heart."

Coppinger looked forward to this for days, pitching against Clemens, and when he was warming up before yesterday's game, he snuck a peek to his right, to the adjacent Red Sox bullpen, and yes, there was the Rocket.

"I tried not to look at him," Coppinger said, "but I couldn't help it. I heard the glove popping over there."

But the hero worship stopped there. Boston shortstop John Valentin, the second hitter of the game, fisted a blooper over shortstop; to a pitcher, a cheap hit, an embarrassment. Coppinger stared at Valentin as he ran up the first base line, as if he wanted Valentin to take it back.

A few innings later, Coppinger glared at one of the Red Sox veteran sluggers standing close to the plate, too close for Coppinger's taste. The Rock muttered something under his breath: get away from the plate, in so many words.

Bill Ripken noticed Jose Canseco, who stands so close to home that his biceps cast a shadow over the plate, crowded home even more than usual against the rookie. Maybe Canseco was trying to make a point to the rookie, Ripken thought.

Maybe Coppinger tried to make a point to the veteran. Coppinger pumped several fastballs inside, once prompting Canseco to throw his arms up over his head. Message sent, message received.

The Orioles led 2-1 in the top of the fourth, after Palmeiro's 22nd homer in the third, and with one out, Coppinger gave up a single to Tim Naehring and walked Reggie Jefferson, and when Coppinger fell behind Troy O'Leary two balls and no strikes, pitching coach Pat Dobson went to the mound to talk about what to throw.

"Let's go with a changeup," said Gregg Zaun. The Orioles catcher wasn't being serious; in fact, he was trying to bait Coppinger a little. Zaun succeeded.

"No way," Coppinger said, brusquely. "I'll throw him a low fastball bTC and maybe he'll hit it on the ground."

The rookie pitcher wanted a double-play ball. O'Leary hit a grounder into the first-base hole, Bill Ripken made a terrific stab of the ball and started a 4-6-3 double play. "He knows what he wants to do," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said. "He knows what he can do."

The top of the sixth rolled around, the Orioles leading 4-2, and Coppinger walked Canseco (staring in at umpire Cousins on ball four). When Coppinger didn't hold Canseco, the Red Sox bopper basically walked into second base. Jefferson blooped a single over short and Canseco scored and The Rock was hot, stomping around the mound.

Johnson, preferring to lift Coppinger with a lead, walked out of the dugout, with Arthur Rhodes warming up in the bullpen. When Johnson was halfway to the mound, Coppinger turned and stared at him. Coppinger said later he was giving Johnson "the pitiful look," a plaintive glance that might make Johnson feel sorry for him and let him finish.

Johnson didn't quite take it that way. "He looked at me like, 'What are you doing out here,' " Johnson said.

The Rock stalked off, and after barely acknowledging a couple of teammates, he moved toward the empty corner of the Orioles' dugout, threw down his glove and cap and cussed. Like John Wayne: Somebody up and swiped his dang horse.

The one-run lead held up, and The Rock got the game ball. Myers suggested he get Clemens to sign the ball, but Coppinger understood that this might perturb The Rocket a little.

"He might not like that," Coppinger said.

Clemens, however, said he saw a lot of himself in Coppinger, the leg drive, the size. "I got to watch him a little bit," Clemens said. "It's great to see young guys try to pick up on how you do certain things, just like I did with Nolan [Ryan] and [Tom] Seaver. It's nice to see how [Coppinger] admires me now, just like I did Nolan and Seaver."

Clemens had to see the resemblance in their respective attitudes, as well.

Coppinger was 20 years old when he reported to his first spring training in February 1995, straight out of rookie ball. The major-league players were on strike, and the Orioles' major-league staff held a meeting of the organization's minor-leaguers. An instructor asked this question: Who here is going to be a major-leaguer?

Coppinger immediately stood up, to his full 6 feet 5. "I can pitch in the major leagues right now," he said.

The Rocket would approve.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Boston Red Sox

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 8: 05

TV/Radio: ESPN/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Tom Gordon (6-4, 6.32) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (5-6, 4.73)

Tickets: Fewer than 1,000 left

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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