In complete control, Key blanks Rangers Starter goes distance in 9-0 rout of Rangers

April 14, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

It was the trade that wasn't a trade. The New York Yankees signed unpredictable free agent David Wells, and the Orioles answered by signing Jimmy Key for a discounted $7.65 million over two seasons.

Cha-ching.

So far the Yankees have gotten a barroom fight, a broken hand and a case of gout from Wells. The Orioles continued to count their early returns yesterday as Key shut down the Texas Rangers, 9-0, before 44,154 at Camden Yards.

While the Yankees haven't felt buyer's remorse over Wells, the Orioles are more than satisfied with their end of the swap. In three starts, Key has given the Orioles two victories, 21 total innings and a greater link to consistency. While the rest of the rotation continues to settle, Key has been a constant.

"That's what it's all about," said Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller. "I hope everybody saw it."

They had to look fast. As the Orioles were pounding the Rangers for 12 hits and four home runs, two by center fielder Jeffrey Hammonds, manager Davey Johnson tracked Key at 97 pitches entering the ninth inning, 112 when it ended. However, the official pitch count was 10 higher. Had he been given the higher number, Johnson implied Key would have been gone after eight innings.

"He was getting a little tired toward the end but he was still throwing strikes. You like to give a guy a chance to throw a complete-game shutout but at the same time I was sitting over there nervous like I got a one-run lead because I don't want anything to happen to him," Johnson said.

It got so bad that one inning Key nearly broke a sweat. In three starts, he has equaled the team's 1996 total for shutouts.

Mostly he gave a lesson in professionalism as the game was played in a rapid-fire 2: 24, 56 minutes shorter than the Orioles' average. Johnson reveled not only in bludgeoning last year's nemesis but also in witnessing an up-tempo National League-style game.

"You get defensive plays behind a guy like that because he's not walking around the mound for five minutes between every pitch," said catcher Chris Hoiles, who contributed his first home run in the fifth inning.

As the Orioles learned against him, Key is a master of location. Even on his early mistakes, the off-balance Rangers could do no better than loft harmless fly balls. "You try to get something up in the zone and whack at it. But a lot of times his pitches up in the zone are off the plate. The pitch seems hitable but it's not because it's off the plate," Hoiles said.

The Yankees signed away Wells because of his dominance against their own hitters at Yankee Stadium. Unable to get past Key's history of shoulder problems, the Yankees offered the left-hander only a one-year contract after he had given them 12 victories, nine after June, and stirring wins in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series and the clinching Game 6 of the World Series.

"I pitched well in the second half last year. I was very effective in the postseason. I answered all the questions I needed to answer myself about how my arm was. I'm not worried about it," Key said.

Last year the Orioles received 11 wins, three complete games and a 5.14 ERA from Wells, who allowed 298 base runners in 224 1/3 innings. With Key, the Orioles are looking beyond numbers. They hope Key, who turns 36 on April 22, will serve as both a No. 2 starter and a role model.

Said Miller: "From what I understand, last year they had a problem with guys going only three or four innings and putting a strain on the bullpen. With the arms we have over here now, if these guys stay healthy that shouldn't be a problem."

Said Key: "I think we've got a good rotation. I think our job -- and I'll preach it to these guys as long as I'm here -- is to carry the game six innings. You're not asked to carry the game nine innings. In the American League, you carry the game six innings and keep your team in the game. To me, the biggest plus we've got is our bullpen. If we're close, or winning, or one run behind, they're not going to give up many runs. With our offense, we're going to win a lot of games."

Yesterday represented Key's third quality start in as many appearances. There were two outs in the eighth inning before the Rangers pushed a runner to second base. Key produced a result from 11 of 32 hitters faced in one or two pitches. Two of seven base runners were erased on double plays as Key, the consummate ground-ball pitcher, required only two outfield putouts in the last six innings.

And Key didn't have to wait for offense yesterday as the Orioles scored on Rangers pitching in the first five innings and in six of the first seven.

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