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.

Welke watched their every swing and their every pitch. He witnessed center fielder Ken Griffey flail himself into knots in a taxing pursuit of Roger Maris' home run record. He sometimes saw 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, the Orioles special assignment scout noted the heavy diet of fastballs they were being fed.

What Welke saw, he wrote down. For two days he slept little at the Seattle Hilton as he typed reports on the Mariners' tendencies good and bad. When done, he had authored a blueprint for success.

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; the Division Series opened with the Orioles underdogs despite having their league's best record.

However, by early Sunday evening both sides had conceded that the Orioles not only had outpitched and outplayed the Mariners, but they also had outscouted them.

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

Johnson credited pitching coach Ray Miller and Miller credited his reports. Sitting in a Cleveland hotel room, Welke watched his words come to life thanks to seamless execution.

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 hitter Joey Cora batted .176, never walked, and scored only once. The Mariners, who shattered 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 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. They were dominant, I thought."

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 potentially 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," he said. "Davey knows these guys. These players know these guys. What they didn't know was what they'd been doing the last two weeks. 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 shortstop Alex Rodriguez try 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 American League 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.

An example: Welke noted that Mariners catcher Dan Wilson, the No. 8 hitter, was a dangerous high fastball hitter but could not lay off low breaking pitches.

The Orioles executed perfectly. Wilson suffered an 0-for-13 series with nine strikeouts. Combined, the top two and bottom two spots in the Mariners' lineup hit .190 (12-for-63).

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