Good sign: Coppinger shakes off bad outing O's pitcher expands outlook, repertoire

March 21, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Right-hander Rocky Coppinger didn't have much yesterday. He struggled with his control and fought himself for four innings on the way to his first defeat of the exhibition season. But in the space of one season, he has matured enough to take something positive out of every appearance.

"I would like to have all my starts be like my first four, but today I went out there and didn't have anything," Coppinger said, soon after giving up two runs on two hits, five walks and a hit batsman in an 8-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves. "I guess you have to look at it from the positive side and say that I walked six guys and still only gave up two runs."

If that sounds like a rationalization, it is important nonetheless. Coppinger has expanded his pitching repertoire this year. He is better able to keep opposing hitters off balance. He can do more with less, and yesterday's game was a good example, even if it was a dubious one.

"I think so," he said. "I think I can win if I don't have my good fastball. Hopefully, in those situations, I'll still have a good changeup or curveball. You aren't always going to have all your pitches. That certainly is rare for me."

Coppinger had everything going for him up until yesterday's start. He had pitched 11 innings and given up just one run on six hits, diminishing concern that his relative lack of professional experience might become a problem in his first full season in the major leagues.

"He's a lot smarter," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's changing speeds a lot more. He's experimenting out there, which you see veteran pitchers do in spring training, but you don't often see young pitchers do. He's going to be able to pitch his way out of trouble more this year."

Last year, Coppinger was called on to bail the Orioles out of a desperate situation. Left-handers Kent Mercker and Jimmy Haynes didn't pan out, leaving the club with just three solid starters. The club would have preferred to have its top pitching prospect spend the entire 1996 season in the minor leagues, but necessity became the mother of his ascension.

bTC There were frustrating moments, but Coppinger made 22 starts and won 10 games to help the Orioles stage a strong second-half run for the wild-card playoff berth. He struggled in his only postseason start, but that only made him more determined to start the 1997 season in excellent shape.

"I realized last year how long the season is," he said. "In the minor leagues, your season is a month shorter, and I'm planning on going back to the postseason this year, so my season is going to be two months longer. Last year, I got tired at the end. This year, I don't want that to happen."

Johnson doesn't seem concerned. Coppinger should stay stronger longer because he is more comfortable in the major leagues and will be less vulnerable to the stress that comes with trying to prove himself at a new level.

"You use a lot more energy when you're breaking into the big leagues," Johnson said. "You're more excitable. I'm not worried at all about him running out of gas."

It was a difficult day all around for the Orioles' pitching staff. Left-hander Arthur Rhodes, who is pitching through knee soreness, gave up a long home run to Braves outfielder Jermaine Dye, and right-hander Alan Mills struggled with his location in a four-run eighth inning.

"Arthur didn't look like he wanted to throw the ball in his first inning," Johnson said. "In the second, it seemed like he got a little mad and threw better. Alan just wasn't making any pitches today."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: New York Mets

Site: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Time: 7: 05

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)

F: Starters: Mets' Juan Acevedo vs. Orioles' Shawn Boskie

Pub Date: 3/21/97

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