Orioles scout gets a merit badge Club turned Welke data on Mariners tendencies into success blueprint

October 07, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

For 17 days Don Welke stalked the Seattle Mariners with his charts and note pad.

Welke watched every swing and every pitch. He saw center fielder Ken Griffey flail himself into knots in a futile, taxing pursuit of Roger Maris' home run record. He sometimes observed Randy Johnson grip a ball with four fingers, a certain indicator all was not right with the Big Unit's left hand.

As the Mariners feasted on the substandard pitching offered by the Oakland Athletics and Texas Rangers, Welke, one of the Orioles' three special assignment scouts, noted the heavy diet of fastballs they were being fed.

Most of what Welke saw, he wrote down. For two days he slept little at a Seattle hotel, typing reports on the Mariners' tendencies. When done, he had authored a blueprint for success.

"You just try to give your team as much up-to-date information as possible. You hope what you give them helps. It's still up to the players to execute. But I know it didn't hurt," said Welke.

He sat in a Cleveland hotel room Sunday with a note pad. He marked every pitch Johnson threw. When he had drawn 35 slashes in the first inning alone, Welke knew that his advice was in play. Less than three hours later, the Orioles finished a four-game takedown of the Mariners by suffocating the game's most intimidating lineup and by twice beating its most intimidating pitcher.

Neither was thought possible when the Division Series opened with the Orioles considered underdogs. But by early Sunday evening both sides knew the Orioles had not only outpitched and outplayed the Mariners, but that they had also outscouted them.

"We had good advance scouting and I don't think anybody keeps a better chart on the opposition than [pitching coach] Ray Miller," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said after Sunday's clincher. "We changed some patterns and we didn't give in at certain times."

Miller's philosophy and Welke's reports meshed perfectly. Miller demands his pitchers work efficiently and low in the strike zone. Welke had noted the Mariners' tendency as first-pitch fastball hitters. The result: a steady diet of first-pitch breaking balls that left the Mariners confused and eventually frustrated.

The Orioles held the game's most feared lineup to a .218 average and only 11 runs. Griffey, unable to discipline his swing, managed two singles in 15 at-bats. He never pushed a fair fly ball to the outfield.

Leadoff man Joey Cora hit .176, never walked, scored only once and finished the series in a 1-for-12 swoon. The Mariners, who broke the '96 Orioles home run record, bashed six -- all bases-empty shots -- as Orioles pitching struck out 42 and walked seven in one of the greatest control performances in recent postseason history.

"You have to execute and those guys did a fantastic job," Welke said. "What you see doesn't matter if they can't carry it out."

Perhaps his proudest moment came in the seventh inning of Game 2. With the Orioles leading 5-3 with a runner at first base and two outs, hard-throwing Armando Benitez faced Roberto Kelly, who already had doubled twice in the series. Kelly is a dead fastball hitter. Benitez is addicted to heat. But instead of trying to muscle out of a game-turning jam, Benitez threw a slider that froze Kelly to end the inning with Griffey on deck. The Orioles won the game, 9-3.

"That showed me a lot right there," Welke said. "They trusted what they were given."

Welke didn't write down everything. More than two decades as a scout had taught him that much of September is only for show. He twice saw Alex Rodriguez attempt to steal third but dismissed it as an empty try for 30 steals.

When the Mariners played hit-and-run with their free swingers, Welke figured it was just for show. After all, the Orioles were doing much the same during the final distracted weeks of their schedule. Pitch sequences were altered and other, more subtle deceptions installed. When the Orioles ran, it was usually to jog on and off the field. Their main concern was to rehabilitate injuries and rest certain arms.

The Mariners had other objectives. While his team had a virtual lock on the AL West, manager Lou Piniella continued to play Griffey and right fielder Jay Buhner in order for them to reach significant individual goals. Griffey was chasing Maris' 36-year-old home run record. Buhner was straining to hit 40 home runs for a fourth consecutive season. Johnson, despite a sore finger, pitched two innings of relief on the season's final day to gain his 20th win via a scorer's decision.

"They kept expanding their strike zone," Welke wrote of Griffey & Co. "They were hitting well, but they were getting nothing but fastballs to hit."

Welke suggested that the Orioles' pitchers rely more heavily on an off-speed assortment. At the same time, he put special emphasis on the top two and bottom two bats in the Mariners' lineup. Miller believed by keeping those runners off base, the monstrous middle of the order could be defanged.

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