Bullpen quality a relief for O's Six relievers have locked up roster spots before a pitch thrown

February 16, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Managers treat some inside information the way government treats top-secret reports, refusing to discuss or acknowledge sensitive matters until an appropriate time has passed.

In that light, the Orioles' 1996 season has been declassified, and the truth can be told: At the end of spring training, manager Davey Johnson was mortified at the condition of his bullpen. Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills were recovering slowly from

shoulder problems, and besides Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell, Johnson had no one he thought he could win with.

Johnson has exceptional confidence in the bullpen now. Many ** within the organization regard the unit as potentially the strongest part of the team, stronger than its batting lineup or defense or starting pitchers.

"The biggest improvement for this team is the quality of the bullpen," Johnson said. "You'd have to be blind not to see that."

Catcher Chris Hoiles said, "Going into last year, we were just trying to find enough [sound] bodies for the bullpen. This year, we definitely have guys who are big-league material, and if we have injuries, the Nos. 7-8-9 guys are capable of stepping up and filling that void."

The Orioles probably will carry seven relievers this year, and six spots are accounted for, three lefties and three right-handers: Johnson's confidence in closer Randy Myers seemed to waver in the final five weeks of the regular season, and the manager began to use Armando Benitez and Mills to finish games. Nonetheless, Myers saved 31 of 38 opportunities, and in the final month of the regular season, Myers allowed one earned run in 11 games. The left-hander is 26 saves from the 300th of his career.

Orosco, the left-handed setup man, was among the American League's best pitchers during the final five months of last year. Orosco gave up 12 earned runs in a two-day stretch in April, and allowed only nine earned runs in 64 other appearances.

Orosco, who turns 40 in April, called Johnson to tell him he was going to be a day late for training camp. But the veteran pitcher took a red-eye flight from San Diego that arrived here yesterday morning, and he participated in the first workout. "He just couldn't stay away," Johnson said.

Benitez, the right-handed setup man, reported to camp in good condition, and having spent many hours in the off-season developing a changeup to complement his 98 mph fastball. HTC Benitez pitched well down the stretch, and though he has had some dubious moments in his career, he has allowed only 52 hits and struck out 90 in 72 innings. Pure talent.

He could challenge Myers for the closer's job this summer.

Mills is recovered from the shoulder surgery he had in 1995 and from a severe groin pull he suffered last September. Last season, right-handers batted only .197 against him, and overall, opposing batters hit just .208. He'll alternate setup duties with Benitez, mostly pitching on the days that Benitez doesn't.

Rhodes went 9-0 before the All-Star break but suffered pain in his shoulder joint that prevented him from pitching in all but five games after the break. Rhodes says he's healthy and feeling fine; doctors have told Rhodes, he says, that his condition simply requires more rest in the off-season.

Johnson uses Rhodes similar to the way New York Yankees manager Joe Torre used Mariano Rivera last year. Rivera usually entered the game in the sixth to eighth innings when New York had the lead, and so will the left-handed Rhodes -- especially against teams vulnerable to left-handed pitching, such as the Kansas City Royals and Yankees.

Terry Mathews, acquired from the Florida Marlins in a trade last August, signed a two-year deal in the off-season, and he'll serve in middle relief. Mathews has a good, durable arm (he threw in 71 games last summer) and pitched effectively for the Orioles, compiling a 3.38 ERA in 14 games.

If any of those six is injured, the Orioles could call up someone such as Scott Kamieniecki or Brian Williams or Giovanni Carrara, pitchers signed to minor-league contracts who have at least some major-league experience.

"If our guys pitch like they did at the end of last year," Rhodes said, "we should have a great bullpen."

It's one of the worst-kept secrets in the Orioles' camp.

Relief men

F: These Orioles relievers were tough to hit last season:

Pitcher.. .. .. .. .. .. . ..Opponents' average

Armando Benitz.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . .143

Jesse Orosco.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... .207

Alan Mills .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . .208

Arthur Rhodes.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .241

Randy Myers.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . .265

Terry Mathews.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .275

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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