Starting out, O's Miller only has eyes for finish Avoiding '97 late fade goal for grind of season

March 19, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- In the dozen seasons between Ray Miller's managerial runs with the Minnesota Twins and the Orioles, the truism never changed that the best managers always plan at least two innings ahead. With only 12 days remaining before the March 31 season opener against the Kansas City Royals, Miller is thinking six months ahead.

The defending American League East champions arrived in camp facing few unknowns. As proof of an uneventful spring, they have created none for themselves since. Miller, however, realizes that his $70 million clubhouse will not be judged as much on how it starts the season as how it finishes it.

"What I'm talking about is September," Miller says emphatically.

As pitching coach, Miller witnessed virtually the same club dominate the first half of last season, list because of injuries around the All-Star break, then suffer a 13-16 September while attempting to heal itself for the postseason.

The result was an uncomfortable wait before clinching the division as the New York Yankees narrowed a 9 1/2 -game lead to two by Sept. 26. Even with the league's best record, the "experienced" Orioles entered the playoffs as underdogs to the Seattle Mariners in the Division Series before suffering a shocking defeat to the Cleveland Indians in the AL

Championship Series. Unsaid: Maintenance is important for the game's oldest team.

"There's a lot of adrenalin in the beginning of the year. This is a good club, and it's going to come out and play well. But it's a long grind. And I think the more you put in here, the further you can take that grind," Miller says. "I think because of some nagging injuries, we paid up in September last season trying to get people healthy. We were in front. We were probably going to win. And I didn't like that.

"We were going to be in the playoffs. It's the right thing to do,

but I don't like that part of baseball."

There is a difference between pacing and coasting, and Miller did not embrace what he saw during last year's stretch fade. Injuries to several relievers forced a temporary realignment of roles last September. Roberto Alomar was battling groin and shoulder problems. Brady Anderson's knees forced him to accept down time. Eric Davis was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Chris Hoiles, working on a surgically repaired knee, caught only sparingly.

"I think it's human nature if you back off to get fresh and think you can turn it right back on again when you get to the postseason, you turn it on too far. You tend to get too high," Miller says.

The manager's response has been to push his projected roster, albeit while encouraging some regulars such as Cal Ripken and Mike Bordick to take a longer view. Greater emphasis on conditioning has earmarked camp, and Miller offers no apologies for the early assignment of rehabilitating prospects and no-shot minor-league free agents to Sarasota. From here on, Miller says the games will assume greater purpose, with at-bats and innings distributed accordingly.

Miller also has grown tired of the overstuffed dugouts typical of his early exhibition schedule. Frequently, he has sent pitching coach Mike Flanagan foraging for opponents' media guides to determine the number of available left-handed and right-handed hitters. Except for standout infield prospect Ryan Minor, players of the Orioles' future have received little exposure at the expense of the present. Running a game for the first time since 1986, Miller concedes, "I'd like to get to the point where I can manage a little bit."

A steady diet of watered-down lineups from expected doormats such as the Montreal Expos, Twins and Florida Marlins has offered little. He expects the last 11 games to give a more realistic look.

Despite packing the suspense of a Jane Austen novel, camp still offers a few subtle riddles.

Will Miller carry 12 pitchers or take Ozzie Guillen as an additional infielder?

Miller has consistently sided with keeping an extra player, but Guillen, a career shortstop, has not made an easy transition at second base. Miller likes having an additional left-handed bat on the bench, which likely will decide the issue. Meanwhile, left-hander Doug Johns has impressed Miller and Flanagan.

Verdict: The course of least resistance would have Johns optioned to Rochester, where he would wait for further %o developments.

How stable is the bullpen?

Most eyes focused on Armando Benitez at the opening of camp, but have since shifted to middle relievers Terry Mathews and Norm Charlton. Benitez has shown aptitude for a changeup. Miller has become concerned enough about Charlton's spotty performance to ask that the left-hander junk his preoccupation for a split-fingered pitch and concentrate more on his fastball. Mathews is adjusting his delivery and recently has shown signs of regaining what he lost in last season's second half.

Verdict: The Orioles are quietly conducting a talent search to bolster the bullpen, but any trade appears unlikely before the season.

Is Cal's back back?

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