O's Coppinger takes his first step back Lacking speed but showing maturity, rehabbed pitcher retires all 6 batters in debut

March 05, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. -- Orioles manager Ray Miller didn't wait for Rocky Coppinger to reach the dugout yesterday before shaking his hand. They met as the pitcher crossed the third base line, his first outing in seven months bringing Miller onto the field as if the game had ended.

At that point, Miller had seen plenty. Out to prove his elbow and shoulder were healthy and his mind clear, Coppinger retired all six batters he faced on 21 pitches in the Orioles' 6-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium.

His velocity wasn't where it should be, his best fastball coming in around 86 mph. But he looked, Miller said, as if he was pitching for the first time rather than just throwing.

Replacing starter Doug Drabek in the fourth inning, Coppinger struck out the first batter he faced, catcher Tom Lampkin, and got the next two hitters on fly balls to center field. In the fifth, he knocked down a shot to the mound and threw out Delino DeShields, retired Mark McGwire on a grounder to shortstop Mike Bordick -- who made a diving stop in the hole -- and got Ray Lankford to fly to right.

Miller had planned on extending Coppinger for another inning, but decided to leave a good thing alone.

"I was real proud of him," Miller said. "He was very, very comfortable with what he did."

Coppinger, 23, looked relieved as he sat inside his locker while the game continued. He hadn't faced major-league hitters since last May, and threw his last minor-league pitch Aug. 1, in between two stays on the disabled list. And it had been even longer since he enjoyed pitching, the passion having been drained by poor health and poor judgment.

"I couldn't ask for anything more," he said. "I didn't care if I got hit all over the place. Just to be out there was more than enough."

"I thought he threw the ball really well," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "He had four pitches right out of the chute and threw them all pretty effectively."

That wasn't the case last season. Penciled in as the No. 4 starter, Coppinger went on the disabled list at the end of March with inflammation in his right shoulder, butted heads with former manager Davey Johnson over his removal from a game in Minnesota and regularly bit the hand that reached out to help him. He appeared in only five games, going 1-1 with a 6.30 ERA, before being shut down in late May with a sprained ligament in his elbow. He made two starts at Triple-A Rochester, then was shelved for about a month before going to Double-A Bowie in mid-July and starting three times. He then gave up seven hits and four runs in a five-inning start at Rochester on Aug. 1, opposing Columbus' Hideki Irabu.

Having won 10 games as a rookie in 1996 and pitching in the American League Championship Series, he was supposed to become a fixture in the Orioles' rotation. Instead, he lost his job and gained weight, a problem that he began to address with a two-week stay in January at Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center.

Coppinger said he took off 15 pounds over the winter and reduced his body fat by around 5 percent. His manager sees other changes.

"He's more serious about everything," Miller said. "He's working on some things that last year he'd have blown off. Rocky's had a lot of problems, immaturity probably, but he's grown up. I can talk to him. He listens. You don't get a lot back, but he's been very respectful."

He was being cautious in the bullpen while warming up yesterday, still leery of cutting loose with the fastball. "Finally, I said, 'Well, you better start cutting it loose a little bit or you might get killed out there with McGwire hitting a shot at your head.' My velocity wasn't what it should be, but I think it'll come," he said.

It wasn't 1996 all over again, but it was a start. "I think he's going to get to that point," Hoiles said. "He showed a lot of signs of being the Rocky of old -- around the strike zone, threw strikes with everything. That's the way the old Rocky used to be."

The new Coppinger doesn't appear to have a place to pitch in Baltimore. He went unclaimed in the expansion draft and most likely will begin the year at Rochester.

"It's nobody's fault but my own. I came to spring training out of shape last year. There are obstacles I'm going to have to go around," he said.

"I think I'll be ready to pitch regularly. The way the doctors made it sound, I'm a month ahead of schedule. I worked hard in the off-season to get my arm strong and I continue to do that, and I think it will only get better and better every time I pitch.

"I know they didn't protect me [in the draft] and that's kind of discouraging, but it's a business. I feel like the Orioles got away DTC with not having somebody pick me up. But it's a good organization. I'm going to have fun, and I know if Rocky Coppinger's healthy, he's going to be able to pitch in the big leagues. If not with the Orioles, somewhere else maybe. Hopefully, it's here."

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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