Coppinger joins Wells at high end of the scale O's vet lends rookie an extra-large hand

July 30, 1996|By Jason LaCanfora | Jason LaCanfora,SUN STAFF

Eleven years, 1 inch, 25 pounds and a goatee.

That's about all that separates David Wells from Rocky Coppinger.

Wells, 33, once was in Coppinger's shoes. He remembers what it was like to be a highly touted, fiery young pitcher with much to prove.

Wells knows how it feels to be teased endlessly because of his size, and he recalls how Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield looked after him in his early years with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Now, the Orioles' left-hander relishes the opportunity to do the same thing for a 22-year-old rookie.

"I know where he's coming from because I've been a big man in this game for a long time," Wells said. "It's hard because you hear all the fat jokes and all that. So if you get together and talk about it and kid each other, I think it takes a lot of pressure off and when you hear it you just laugh.

"I just think it's good to give a little and help guys out. If Rocky ever needed anything, all he'd have to do is ask. It makes you a lot more comfortable at this level knowing somebody cares about you."

Coppinger, a baby-faced, 6-foot-5, 250-pound rookie, recently took up residence in the locker stall next to Wells, a scruffy 6-4, 225-pounder. They have lots to talk about.

Both throw the ball hard and love to challenge hitters. Both get visibly upset on the field at times and neither ever wants to come off the mound.

"Boomer has taken me under his wing a little bit," Coppinger said. "He's not only helped me with the baseball aspects, but the lifestyle, as well. What to do, what not to do, stuff like that. The reason me and Boomer get along so well is because we're big guys and we take a lot of heat for it.

"We're the only two guys who can't get on each other. It's fun. We're big guys and we like to have a snack once in a while. But that's what's good about it, having a guy you can relate to."

Wells has helped Coppinger adjust to his role with the Orioles.

Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Pat Dobson have coddled the youngster. Coppinger has not pitched through the seventh inning since his recall from Triple-A on June 6. The

Orioles decided early on to pull Coppinger when he starts struggling, rather than let him get pounded on the mound.

"I think one of the successes of the history of the Orioles has been for years pitchers who learn at the major-league level," Johnson said. "You want them to be successful. I'm not going to let him get lit up out there. You want them to build on success as much as you can."

Coppinger has lost two straight games after running his record to 5-0, and he carries a hefty 5.70 ERA, though Johnson and Dobson said they are pleased with his progress. Last year, Coppinger led all Orioles minor-leaguers in wins (16), ERA (1.97) and strikeouts (172).

He's not used to losing.

Coppinger's last start was the toughest. He allowed seven runs and two Albert Belle homers in 4 2/3 innings against the Cleveland Indians last Thursday. Coppinger started to worry about being sent back to Rochester and was beginning to doubt himself. Wells was quick to intervene.

"He told me it's just part of the game," Coppinger said. "Boomer told me after the game that it's going to happen all the time. It's not going to be the last time I give up a couple of home runs to Albert Belle. So that really helped me. He's really helped me put my mind at ease."

Coppinger is not used to leaving games early, either.

He regularly pitched eight or more innings per game in the minors. He averaged more than six innings per start in 1995 and four of his 29 starts were complete games. He is averaging about five innings per start with the Orioles.

"Rocky has to remember whenever we do take him out it's for his own benefit," Dobson said. "We're going to be looking after him the whole time. He was a little hot one of the first times we took him out, but we sat him down the next day and told him we're trying to protect him. We want him to always leave the mound on a good note. He understood that."

Coppinger said, "At first it was frustrating, but now I'm used to it. I understand the reasoning behind it. It can be good for me as my career goes on. I'm happy with the way I've been handled. I'm not the only guy this has ever happened to."

It happened to Wells, too.

Cito Gaston, Wells' manager in Toronto, often would sit the pitcher down to watch hitters closely. Gaston tried to bring the left-hander along slowly, much as the Orioles are doing with Coppinger. That meant pulling him early sometimes, which sometimes caused an eruption.

Once, Wells chucked the ball toward the outfield when Gaston came to the mound to take him out, then they nearly fought in the manager's office. Coppinger takes a different approach. Equally as reluctant to leave, Coppinger said he just mumbles self-criticisms under his breath when Johnson comes to take him out.

That's one difference between the pitchers Dobson can live with.

"Boomer's a pretty intense guy, a pretty tough guy," Dobson said. "He's a good guy for Rocky to match up with. As long as there's not too much food around, they'll stay out of trouble."

Orioles tonight Opponent: Minnesota Twins

Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis

Time: 8: 05

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Rocky Coppinger (5-2, 5.70) vs. Twins' Frankie Rodriguez (10-7, 5.10)

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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