Long relief is no haven O's Mathews, angered by poor defense, vents frustration to Miller

'It's built up and up'

Veteran at forefront of bullpen concerns

March 26, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

VIERA, Fla. -- A weird symmetry has followed the Orioles' bullpen through spring training. When camp opened, scrutiny greeted an uncertain closer situation. As they prepare for Saturday night's return to Baltimore, the Orioles now wonder who will be the first man through the center-field gate.

The puzzle centers on none other than Terry Mathews, last October's postseason exile no longer able to escape criticism in what is supposed to be the safe haven of the exhibition season.

Mathews did not appear in last night's game against the Florida Marlins, but that did nothing to quell an issue that chased him into manager Ray Miller's office Tuesday for what Miller described as a "vent" session.

Irritated by poor defensive support, Mathews snapped after Tuesday's televised one-inning performance against the New York Mets in which he allowed three runs, two earned. Third baseman Cal Ripken commited an error, and center fielder Brady Anderson appeared to laze after a fly ball that became a double. Mathews allowed three hits, and his ERA jumped to 6.75. That Mathews has worked on improving his mechanics after a winter of weight loss matters little to those critics who booed him off the field in Game 3 of last year's Division Series against the Seattle Mariners.

During the meeting, Miller assured Mathews that he still has a roster spot and hoped the session therapeutic.

"Terry never knuckles under to anything. This has been an ongoing thing. It's built up and up. It's like pouring water on a circuit," Miller said.

Asked his attitude about what awaits, Mathews responded, "If people want to look at what happened over a small part of last season and ignore the good things I did, then nothing I say is going to change that. I guess the only thing that's going to shut them up is for me to go out and put up zeros."

Given the current alignment of a six-man bullpen, the Orioles need Mathews to right himself. Miller hopes to consistently have Armando Benitez and Arthur Rhodes ready for ninth-inning duty. Jesse Orosco is considered a specialist who works only against left-handed hitters. Norm Charlton and Alan Mills are responsible for setup duty, leaving Mathews for long relief.

Last year, whoever was out of favor as fifth starter would handle the role. But Mike Johnson and Shawn Boskie are with the Montreal Expos, creating a subtle void.

Miller calls the situation "a concern" but glosses over it by pointing to a veteran starting rotation he hopes will avoid outings of five innings or less. He, too, has become weary of the predictable response given Mathews.

Orioles fans in Fort Myers pelted Mathews with abuse after a March 11 outing against the Boston Red Sox. Overhearing it, Miller became enraged.

Making matters worse, Mathews' worst struggles have come in games televised back home. Miller is concerned they will only further inflame a bad situation but says he is confident Mathews can handle what awaits.

Mathews never reappeared after the Game 3 debacle in which he surrendered two home runs in a 4-2 loss. The show of no confidence by then-manager Davey Johnson remains a burr.

"That bothered me a lot," Mathew said. "I thought I'd given the team enough to deserve better than that."

Miller has remained adamant that he will not provide himself additional cushion by carrying a 12th pitcher north. However, a slow start, a series of short performances by the rotation or Mathews' continued struggles could alter that thinking. The Orioles continue to trawl for bullpen help but have discovered nothing through waivers while failing to cultivate a trading partner. Nerio Rodriguez remains an in-house possibility, but the organization prefers he continue to develop as a starter at Triple-A Rochester.

"There's no doubt in my mind that I should be here," says Mathews, who carries a guaranteed $865,000 contract this season. "I'm ahead of where I thought I would be. If people don't want to see that, well, that's their problem."

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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