Bullpen spells relief for O's against Seattle

October 01, 1997|By John Eisenberg

SEATTLE -- What is the Orioles' best chance of beating the Mariners in their American League Division Series that begins tonight at the Kingdome?

It's not their hitting; the Mariners have a clear advantage there, having hit 12 points higher than the Orioles during the season and also slugging 68 more homers and scoring 113 more runs.

It's not their starting pitching, either; the Mariners also have a slight edge there, given the inconsistency since mid-June of the Orioles' Big Three of Jimmy Key, Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson.

No, the Orioles' best chance is the superiority of their bullpen, which is the deepest and best in the majors and clearly better than the Mariners' famously flammable 'pen.

"If we can get the games boiled down to our bullpen against their bullpen, I like our chances," Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles said yesterday. "As a matter of fact, I like our chances a lot."

The difference in the 'pens is the most distinct advantage for either team in a toss-up series, and it's the best reason to pick the Orioles to win.

Starting pitching and solid hitting are great and obviously necessary, but it's relief pitching, or the lack of it, that often has determined the winners of tight playoff series in baseball's specialized '90s.

The Rangers had leads in all four games of their Division Series against the Yankees last year, but their bullpen blew three and the Yankees won the series.

The Braves' inability to hold leads cost them dearly in their three World Series losses.

And as the Orioles know, the Yankees' airtight one-two punch of Mariano Rivera and John Wettelend was too good last year.

The Yankees were just the latest of many recent teams to win big with outstanding short relief. The Blue Jays had Tom Henke and Duane Ward when they were dominating. The Indians had Jose Mesa at his peak. The Reds had the Nasty Boys in 1990. The Twins had Jeff Reardon in 1987 and Rick Aguilera in 1991.

The Orioles are the ones with the killer relievers this year, a six-deep, variable bullpen led by closer Randy Myers and setup man Armando Benitez.

"It's probably the best bullpen I ever coached when you take into account depth, experience and lefty-righty matchups," Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller said.

It's a bullpen that totaled 59 saves this year -- 21 more than a patchwork Mariners 'pen that, despite recent improvements, still stirs eyes-closed apprehension in Seattle whenever it goes to work.

That means that one of the primary tasks for the Orioles' hitters in this series is to work counts, extend innings and make the Mariners' starters throw as many pitches as possible, forcing the Mariners' bullpen to have to go to work earlier. Keep an eye on that.

It also means the Orioles' starters need to keep the score close, maximizing the possibility of a late comeback against the Mariners' vulnerable relievers.

In the end, the Orioles' best chance is to reduce as many games as possible to three-inning mini-games staffed by relievers.

That's easier said than done, of course, with Randy Johnson and two other left-handers starting for the Mariners; the Orioles don't hit lefties nearly as well.

"I saw where Randy threw 143 pitches in his last start, so you know he's a guy who is going to stay out there as long as he can stand up," Hoiles said. "It's going to be difficult [to get to the bullpen] when he's in there. I like our chances better after that."

Lately, there is some evidence suggesting that the difference between the bullpens isn't quite as great as it seems.

The Orioles' relievers struggled with a 4-7 record and 6.00 ERA in the club's last 29 games, as Benitez and Arthur Rhodes worked through minor injuries and right-handers Terry Mathews and Alan Mills looked beatable. Manager Davey Johnson said yesterday that everyone was healthy, rested and ready, but it's still a little less certain that the Orioles are a late-inning lock.

And the Mariners' bullpen has fared better since a pair of July trades brought Heathcliff Slocumb from Boston and Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric from Toronto, giving manager Lou Piniella more dependable arms.

The Mariners were so desperate for relief help that they gave up outfield phenom Jose Cruz to Toronto, a rash move that many players and fans criticized.

But the Mariners' bullpen ERA dropped almost two points from the time of the trades to the day the Mariners clinched the AL West, so the short-term gains were real. "I'm comfortable with our bullpen as it is now," Piniella said. "If we'd had this bullpen all year, we would have won a lot more games."

Still, there's no denying that a huge difference still exists between 'pens: The Orioles blew only 14 percent of their 69 save chances this season, while the Mariners blew 41 percent of their 64 chances.

A difference of that size in the bullpen has helped numerous teams succeed in the '90s, a trend the Orioles want to follow.

"It would be great to get the games into the bullpens," Davey Johnson said.

If that happens, the Orioles stand an excellent chance of winning.

If it doesn't happen, well, their fine season could end very quickly.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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