Health is Mills' best relief role Closing trainer's room beats games for Oriole

March 23, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles reliever Alan Mills is a firm believer in manager Ray Miller's plan to go with multiple closers. He believes in its early promise, not its staying power.

"I'm sure in the beginning that's the way it's going to be," he said, "but I think eventually somebody's going to step up and take that job and it will be theirs."

Mills is sure of something else: He won't be that somebody.

Though Miller didn't exclude the right-hander yesterday from the cast of potential ninth-inning characters, Mills seems resigned to another season in the shadows. One of the club's more versatile pitchers when healthy, he'll continue to work middle relief and help in a setup role -- often thankless tasks that he has grown to accept.

"I've been long, middle, setup, I've closed. There's not much else down there to do," said Mills, 31.

If ever he was going to close, this would be the time. Randy Myers is gone, and so is the philosophy that one man should assume most of the burden. Armando Benitez and Arthur Rhodes are in the mix. Norm Charlton could be, too, if he's pitching well.

Mills? He doesn't see himself getting into the fray, and doesn't see where it matters.

"The most important thing is that the team gets the win. As long as somebody's getting the saves, that means the team's winning. That's the bottom line," he said.

Mills totaled eight saves in his first three seasons in Baltimore, beginning in 1992 -- the year he also won 10 games, posted a 2.61 ERA and instantly turned the trade that brought him from the New York Yankees (for Francisco De La Rosa and Mark Carper) into a steal. But since then, he has been more occupied with saving his seasons, injuries cutting into each of the last three.

There was the arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in 1995, when he appeared in only 21 games, and the late start in '96 because of a strained right flexor muscle that put him on the disabled list. And he barely made it out of the gate last year, pinching a nerve in his left shoulder on April 11 after a pre-game collision in the outfield with catcher Lenny Webster.

Never regaining his full strength, Mills went 2-3 with a 4.89 ERA in 39 appearances. For the second time in three seasons, he finished without a save.

Last month, Mills said he was free of pain and stronger than at any time since the injury. "It's doing a lot better," he said. "Every now and then I feel a little tingling sensation, but no pain."

Ask Mills how he's feeling these days and he offers a grin and few words. The subject is akin to walking under a ladder or having a black cat race across his feet.

"I want to stay away from health questions," he said. "Whenever I answer them, it's an omen. If I stay away from them, maybe I can stay away from injuries. I just want to stay healthy. That's my main goal."

His spring numbers are beginning to have a healthy glow. Mills hasn't allowed a run in his last two appearances spanning 2 1/3 innings, and he's 2-0 with a 3.14 ERA in 8 2/3 . He's walked one and struck out seven, and many of the 13 hits against him have been softer than a cheap mattress.

"He's really stepped up the last two times," Miller said. "That's the best I've seen him pitch. I told him that and he got mad. He said, 'You've never seen me 100 percent.' I said, 'If it's better than what I'm seeing now, I'm real excited.'

"The last two outings I thought he popped the ball real well. And he's picked up the pace a little. His body language is better. When you're stepping off and walking around and looking indecisive, I think hitters read that. The advantage goes to the hitter."

Mills hopes to continue putting them at a disadvantage once the games count, in whatever inning he's handed. His desire to close hasn't waned over the years, but he's come to sort of an understanding.

"I guess the longer you play, the more you realize that whether or not it happens isn't in your control," he said. "My job is to get people out, whether it's the ninth inning or the second. What I have to do is do my job when I'm out there."

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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