Patience grows thin with Charlton's bid Miller wants results

reliever sharp vs. L.A.

March 21, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- When they signed Norm Charlton last December, the Orioles called the move a low-risk investment. Three months later, their manager is growing anxious for a return.

In trying to reform the game's tightest bullpen of 1997, Ray Miller hoped to distribute the closer role abandoned by Randy Myers among several relievers.

Charlton, a hard-throwing left-hander who has ranked among the game's most intimidating forces during his nine-year career, was to be one. Now, Miller has reason for pause.

"I think he's been working on some things, but like I told the guys today, it's time to start getting people out," said Miller. "He's been changing some things changing his delivery, getting his forkball where he wants it. Now you want to see some results."

Charlton answered Miller yesterday by routinely retiring the top third of the Los Angeles Dodgers' lineup in the seventh inning of a 3-2 loss.

L There were no walks, no hits, no protracted pitch sequences.

As Miller increasingly harps on first-pitch strikes, Charlton remains one of his most scrutinized pupils. He has tinkered with a forkball so much that he has regularly fallen behind hitters, leaving himself vulnerable with his fastball.

When Miller mentioned earlier this week that the time for experimentation was ending, he mentioned Charlton as the primary example.

"When I'm on, it's strike one, strike one, strike one," said Charlton. "Everything to this point has been about getting myself ready. Now, it's time to get them out."

Miller will assign Charlton accordingly. Already, the veteran's slow start has squelched any projection that he may be the left-handed half of a tag-team closer arrangement shared with Armando Benitez.

By taking the opportunity, Charlton would allow Miller to leave Arthur Rhodes in the left-handed set-up role that has brought 19 wins the past two seasons. That luxury may not occur.

With less than two weeks remaining before the season's start, the bullpen still hasn't assumed order.

Charlton and Terry Mathews remain the biggest variables. Mathews suffered a three-run eighth inning, including three extra-base hits, yesterday to explain the loss. Charlton succeeded but Miller said he must see more.

Once a Nasty Boy with the Cincinnati Reds, Charlton is not only battling opposing hitters this spring, but he's also confronting recent history.

Last season was a washout. Charlton received points for professionalism: He took the ball 71 times for the Mariners and never complained about an ever-changing role. But he amassed the league's worst save percentage (.560) while leading it in blown saves with 11 and highest relief ERA at 7.27.

Charlton averaged more than two runners per inning pitched, a staggering ratio built on an opposing batting average of .312.

How bad was Seattle's bullpen last season? Charlton led the club in save percentage and games finished.

The Mariners eventually bought out Charlton's $2.9 million contract for 1998, making him a free agent. The Orioles got him for $350,000 guaranteed.

Charlton, 35, has undergone two elbow operations since August 1994. Many teams have assumed that 141 appearances the past two seasons might have finished him.

The Orioles conversely believe better maintenance might solve what has ailed him.

Miller referred to Mariners manager Lou Piniella's "volatile" handling of Charlton yesterday. Hastening that he wasn't denigrating Piniella as a manager, Miller said that he would take more care in handling the left-hander.

"It helps for a guy to know how he's going to be used," said Miller, a non-believer in hard-and-fast roles, but an advocate of using arms responsibly.

Last season, Charlton converted nine consecutive save chances from April 11 to May 14. But the turning point may have occurred on May 10 in Baltimore, where he pitched three innings of an 11-inning victory over the Orioles.

Charlton received only five save chances from May 15 to June 24, dropping them all. He lost six straight decisions over a two-month span and recorded the last of his 14 saves on July 26.

Miller desires no such craziness. For now, he projects Charlton ,, as a seventh-inning pitcher, a "bridge" guy who holds a game rather than closes it.

But the manager also will keep an open mind. "If Charlton gives us some consistent games with low pitch counts, that might change," he said.

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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