O's Key shakes off '97 change Healthy then and now, lefty dismisses 5-9 2nd half as no big deal

March 03, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Almost five months after Jimmy Key's kaleidoscopic 1997, the perspective of his season still changes depending on the viewing angle. Early was very good; late proved vexing. The road forgave him; his newly adopted home at Camden Yards punished him. A first-half All-Star, he returned to the mound yesterday under a fresh load of scrutiny.

His pitching line against the Montreal Expos read two runs allowed on four hits and no walks in three innings of an 11-9 Orioles win.

As for his more meaningful line, Key insisted that he is sound and that last year's bothersome second half should not be considered anything more than a two-month swoon. Case closed.

"Physically, I felt fine," Key said. "My arm felt fine. I just wasn't pitching as well as I was early in the season. I concern myself more physically than I do with results because I know if I stay physically well I'll eventually pitch well. Coming out of last year, I was happy with my health so I didn't want to change anything."

Manager Ray Miller extended Key for 49 pitches, 20 more than Mike Mussina threw Saturday and 12 more than workhorse Scott Erickson threw Sunday.

"I threw a lot more pitches than I thought they'd let me throw," Key said almost an hour after completing his turn.

The Expos dinged him for single runs in the second and third innings, but Key's three strikeouts and comfortable mechanics were more reassuring than his overall numbers.

Key, 36, represents the vital connection between the starting rotation's strong-armed top and its sensitive bottom. Last year he provided the Orioles 212 1/3 innings, his most since 1993, while averaging nearly 6 1/3 innings per start.

After signing a two-year, $7.8 million contract as a free agent, Key started Opening Day, won his first eight decisions as an Oriole, was 11-1 after 14 starts and was named to his fifth All-Star team. Then came a hard tumble that left him 5-9 with a 4.15 ERA over his last 20 starts. Key finished the season ineffective at home and was skipped over during the American League Championship Series after two poor postseason starts.

Having won the clinching game of two World Series, Key handled his playoff demotion with class, pitching three shutout innings in relief of Scott Kamieniecki in Game 5 of the ALCS, a 4-2 Orioles win.

"I've been in postseason numerous times and pitched in the bullpen on other occasions. I think in '92 I won the deciding game in the bullpen. You do what you can do in the postseason. I always say you go with who's pitching hot."

The Orioles wait for him to warm. "He's a good pitcher. If he's able to stay healthy, he'll pitch his butt off," said Miller. "A lot of plays are made behind him, but he gives you a chance to win every time he starts."

Able to make 34 starts, Key shrugs off mention of his medical history. "As good as anybody is they go through bad spells. Over my career, I've had spells like that where I've gone a month or two and not pitched well. It happened last year the last couple months," he said. "It could have been the first two months of the season and I finished fine. Physically, I was fine and that's what I concern myself with."

Bothered by a slight hamstring pull in midseason, Key insists health played no part in his decline. However, Miller refuses to discount Key's 1995 shoulder surgery as a contributing factor. "It took a toll," he said.

"It's pitching," explained Key, often described as an American League version of the Atlanta Braves' Tom Glavine, a pitcher who thrives on control and working the outside third of the plate. "I just wasn't making the pitches when I had to make them.

"The first half I was doing it, getting the key outs and winning some games that could have gotten away from me a couple times. The second half, especially the last two months, I wasn't near as consistent doing that. I had a few bad games and some good games, but the consistency kind of left. If you're a control pitcher and don't make the pitches, you're going to get hurt."

Age doesn't allow for such facile explanations. One of 13 Orioles eligible for free agency after this season, Key must decide if he should go to another team or another station in life.

"I'm going to pitch this season like I normally would. I have no plans for next year right now," Key maintained. "My immediate goal is to pitch this year and see what I can do to help this team. I'll evaluate my health at the end of this year. If I'm throwing good and feel like I do right now, I'll be playing here or somewhere next year."

If he hopes to approach last year's 16-10 record, Key must find the antidote for his allergic reaction to Camden Yards, where he was only 6-8, including a 1-8 mark with a 5.21 ERA in his last 11 home starts.

Reminders of the trend still gnaw at him, especially since he was supported by three runs or fewer in eight of those games.

"A lot was written about me struggling to win at Camden Yards, but baseball is a game where half the games are played on the road and half are played at home. To me that's overplayed a little bit," said the former Toronto Blue Jay and New York Yankee who has endured only three losing seasons in a 14-year career.

"You win that day, no matter where you pitch. If you win 15 games on the road and you win two at home, that's a pretty good season. I did what I wanted to do when I signed over here. To me, you look at a season as a whole."

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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