Key seeks return to command post Struggling lefty tinkers, trying to find early form


September 10, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- While the Orioles enjoy their magnificent view above the receding American League East, manager Davey Johnson's task is now balancing the immediacy of a day-to-day routine against the more important postseason stage three weeks away.

Citing coming day-night doubleheaders, Johnson has yet to set his postseason rotation. However, a big part of it sits within his locker sipping coffee with legs crossed.

It is how Jimmy Key prepares for almost every game, even the more significant ones. Tomorrow night at Camden Yards against the New York Yankees will qualify. The game itself may be less significant because of its impact on the standings than what it says about Key, the one-time staff beacon who has sunk into tough times.

The run support, precision and confidence that accompanied Key into this season have vanished. What remains is an admittedly ill-at-ease left-hander.

"There's only been one season [1987] when I didn't have a difficult period during the year," he said. "You just have to work through it. I think I've got enough time to do that before the season ends."

Key has made 30 starts, compiling a 15-8 record and 3.08 ERA. But since ranking as one of the American League's top three pitchers in the first half, Key has found it difficult to rediscover his comfort zone. He hasn't won at Camden Yards since May 7, hasn't won consecutive starts since June 8-13 and no longer works with the robotic efficiency that allowed him to zip through games.

Pitching coach Ray Miller says the problems are mechanical, not physical. Trying to regain the form that helped him to an 11-1 start, Key has thrown twice rather than his standard once on the side since his last start.

"We're just looking for more movement," said Miller. "He's not out there to overpower people. He just needs to be more precise."

Key has made a mechanical adjustment with his hands. Rather than initiate his delivery by dropping his glove, Key is lifting it. The hoped-for result is more action on his sinker and more control over a misbehaving fastball.

"Everything works off the fastball. For me to pitch well, I have to have command over it," Key said. "That hasn't been there lately."

Key won for only the second time since July 21 in a 13-9 decision over the Yankees last Friday. Key needed 115 pitches to clear five innings. Afterward, he insisted that his eight-hit, four-run performance didn't merit a decision.

Key was dominant in July, compiling a 1.99 ERA in six starts. Woeful offensive support left him with only a 1-1 record.

August left him cold. In six starts, Key was 1-2 with a 5.05 ERA. The Orioles were 12-2 in his first 14 starts, 7-9 in his past 16. Those numbers are the most indicting to a pitcher who maintains his job is to give his team a chance to win.

Key said he felt in sync against Kansas City on Aug. 26 -- a 6 2/3 -inning no-decision in which he struck out seven but yielded four runs, three earned. However, he backslid in his next two starts.

Miller acknowledges Key has dropped his arm position, which has left his breaking pitches flatter. He has surrendered eight home runs in his last six starts, as many as he allowed in his first 16.

But two years after undergoing shoulder surgery, Key says he is feeling fine.

"I'm ecstatic about the way I feel. I'm healthy," said Key, who with 189 2/3 is on the verge of his first 200-plus-inning year since 1993. "It's just a matter of getting comfortable out there again."

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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