Thomas, Belle force hard choices

On Baseball

February 23, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Frank Thomas, then Albert Belle.

How do you pitch to those two guys, back-to-back? They'll bat third and fourth, respectively, for the Chicago White Sox this season.

"Four walks," said Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina. "They'll get four walks a game between them. You watch."

Mussina has good reason to say this. Thomas has a lifetime batting average of .556 against Mussina, Belle a .346 average.

With Belle joining forces with the Big Hurt, Mussina said, "it's going to be tougher pitching to the whole team, and it's going to absolutely be tougher pitching to Thomas. You'll be sitting there wondering, which is the lesser of two evils? They're both capable of beating you with one swing."

But Mussina doesn't say Belle's presence will necessarily help Thomas. Rather, the hitters behind Thomas and Belle will benefit the most, because they'll have more runners on base when they bat. "Guys like Harold [Baines] and [Robin] Ventura, they're the ones who are going to be helped," Mussina said.

Mussina and Orioles third base coach Sam Perlozzo agreed that pitching tough to Chicago's No. 1 and No. 2 hitters is going to be particularly important; pitchers will really bear down on Ray Durham, Tony Phillips or whoever else fills those roles. Said Perlozzo, "You have to, because you don't want Thomas and Belle coming up with runners on base."

Former Orioles left-hander Mike Flanagan offered a succinct strategy to pitching to Thomas and Belle: "Low and away. Low and away."

If a pitcher can do that, he at least stands the chance of minimizing the damage. One American League executive said that his team intends to pitch carefully to Thomas, and if he's walked, so be it. Belle is slow enough that every time he comes to bat with a man on, there's a good chance he's going to hit into a double play. For this team, the lesser of two evils is going to be Belle.

Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone said he doesn't think a pitcher should give either slugger anything remotely close to the strike zone in a critical situation. "If you don't pitch to them, they can't beat you," Malone said. "I'd rather take my chances with somebody else beating me. I'd really go after the other guys in the lineup."

Malone concurs with Mussina that Belle's presence will have minimal impact on Thomas' offense. "I don't see how [Thomas] can get much better than he is," Malone said. "I'm sure a little better, but seriously, how much better can he get?"

We'll find out soon.

"They're going to get on base a whole lot," Malone said, "and the guys behind them are going to be able to do some damage. They're going to bat in a lot of RBI situations."

Mussina's kindness

Last Sept. 28, Mussina was three outs away from achieving 20 victories for the first time in his career. The Orioles led Toronto, 2-1, bottom of the ninth, and Armando Benitez came in from the bullpen to close out the Blue Jays.

Sitting in his clubhouse chair Friday, Benitez recalled how excited he felt. Ever since Benitez entered pro ball, Mussina had been his favorite player, his idol. What a pitcher Mussina is, Benitez thought, and here I am, standing on the mound, with a chance to save his 20th victory for him. How wonderful. The Orioles, too, needed only three more outs to clinch the wild-card berth in the playoffs.

However, Blue Jays third baseman Ed Sprague hit a one-out homer over the left-field wall, tying the game. Orioles manager Davey Johnson called on Randy Myers to replace Benitez, who returned to the clubhouse, devastated.

Roberto Alomar homered the next inning, enabling the Orioles to win the game and clinch the wild-card berth. But as his teammates poured champagne on each other, Benitez cried and cried.

"I felt like my heart had broken in four pieces," said Benitez, his eyes misting as he remembered. "Mussina could've won his 20th game."

Mussina consoled Benitez that day, telling him it was no big deal. "He told me I would get lots more chances to save games for him," Benitez recalled. "He's such a nice guy."

Mussina possesses a cutting wit and is capable of great sarcasm, and he enforces high standards for himself and others. But when reporters approached him that day, and one asked him if he was disappointed he hadn't gotten his 20th win, Mussina replied simply, "No. We won."

Wrong Bill Russell

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Bill Russell received an

autograph request in the mail last week, someone asking him to sign his playing card. Except the Bill Russell on the card was 6 feet 10, 220 pounds and playing basketball in a Celtics uniform. Bill Russell of the Dodgers is 6-0, 200 pounds and played baseball. "I guess it's easy to get us mixed up," said Russell.

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