Olson's case not yet closed Reliever: After an elbow injury, ex-Oriole Gregg Olson went from being a dominant closer to a journeyman middle reliever. Now with the Diamondbacks, he believes he can play a major role.

March 31, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The expansion Arizona Diamondbacks are the eighth organization that former Orioles pitcher Gregg Olson has played for since he left Baltimore, but this just might be the right place and the right time for him to re-establish himself as a solid reliever.

He has played in both leagues, and a few others along the way, all the while trying to recover the mechanics and arm strength that made him one of the top closers in the game from 1989 to 1993. That effort has been largely unsuccessful, but this spring was different.

Olson, 31, had the lowest ERA (1.00) of any Diamondbacks pitcher with more than three exhibition appearances. He gave up just one run and seven hits through nine innings of short and setup relief. And, more importantly, he started to snap off that nasty curveball that opposing coaches and managers once rated as the best in baseball in a Baseball America survey.

If the curveball is there, so is the opportunity to play a significant role in the Diamondbacks bullpen.

"There have been times in the past four or five years when it was real close," Olson said, "but [this spring] was the first time it was really there."

Orioles fans remember it well. Olson came out of nowhere to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1989, the same year the Orioles came out of nowhere to stage their unlikely run at the AL East title. He saved 27 games that year and averaged 32 during his first five years in the majors.

He looked like a Hall of Famer in the making, until a partially torn elbow ligament turned him into a journeyman middle reliever who has bounced between the major and minor leagues for the past four seasons.

Olson is still around because he refuses to believe that his best days are behind him. In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, he has always viewed himself as a front-line closer in exile who would eventually re-emerge as one of the dominant pitchers in the game.

"I've been doing that the last four or five years," Olson said, "even when I was throwing up a 5.00 ERA. I felt there was something that kept coming out with the game on the line that I couldn't bring out other times."

It appears to be coming out now, though he still has a long way to go to persuade someone to give him the ball regularly with the game on the line, even on an expansion club.

"The best-case scenario -- if I keep throwing the way I did -- is unlimited," Olson said.

That may be true, but the Diamondbacks are not looking at him as a full-time closer, at least not yet. Right-hander Felix Rodriguez is ahead of him on the depth chart and pitched well this spring, but his earlier status as one of the top closers in the game should rate him some consideration if he continues to pitch well.

"Obviously, everyone knows his reputation as a closer," said Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter. "But initially, we're looking at him as a guy who can give us a couple of good innings and get his arm strength back. The command and resilience is what you're looking for."

Olson said he's confident that he finally has found the good throwing mechanics that disappeared when he tried to pitch through the elbow injury that would lead to his departure from Baltimore.

"In Baltimore, I was trying to throw through it and screwed up my mechanics. If I had been able to look ahead, I would have concentrated more on keeping my mechanics sound."

Things started to turn around in Kansas City last year under the tutelage of Royals pitching coach Bruce Kison, and Olson apparently has made more progress working with Diamondbacks pitching coach Mark Connor.

Maybe, he wonders, it would have happened sooner if he had stayed in Baltimore, but the club was uneasy offering him more than a one-year, incentive-laden contract. Olson believed that his status as the club's all-time saves leader should count for more, and signed instead with the Atlanta Braves. It was a decision he still regrets.

"I think my mechanics would have been squared away a lot sooner if I had stayed with the Orioles," he said. "People there knew me and knew how I pitched. But I don't blame them. They made an assessment of the situation, and I had my own personal beliefs. It works both ways."

Travelin' man

Since leaving the Orioles after the 1993 season, relief pitcher Gregg Olson, now with Arizona, has had 11 stops with eight different organizations.

Year Team ........ W-L ERA

1988 Hagerstown ... 1-0 2.00

Charlotte ......... 0-1 5.87

Orioles ........... 1-1 3.27

1989 Orioles ...... 5-2 1.69

1990 Orioles ...... 6-5 2.42

1991 Orioles ...... 4-6 3.18

1992 Orioles ...... 1-5 2.05

1993 Orioles ...... 0-2 1.60

1994

Richmond .......... 0-0 1.59

Atlanta ........... 0-2 9.20

1995

Buffalo ........... 1-0 2.49

Cleveland ......... 0-0 13.50

Omaha ............. 0-0 0.00

K.C. .............. 3-3 3.26

1996

Indianapolis ...... 0-0 4.26

Detroit ........... 3-0 5.02

Houston ........... 1-0 4.82

1997 Minnesota .... 0-0 18.36

Omaha ............. 3-1 3.31

K.C. .............. 4-3 3.02

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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