Bullpen further disarmed Loss of Benitez hurts struggling group

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

NEW YORK -- So far this season, the Orioles bullpen has been a place where leads go to die. Given yesterday's loss of Armando Benitez to an eight-game suspension, the degree of difficulty grows exponentially.

Not only have the Orioles lost their most intimidating presence, but they also lost an invaluable body among a group of short arms. While the starting rotation confronts the absence of ace Mike Mussina, the bullpen lacks any semblance of form.

Manager Ray Miller and pitching coach Mike Flanagan now face the task of modifying a struggling bullpen without its closer. Benitez led the staff with 22 appearances. "Somebody's going to have to step up," said left-hander Jesse Orosco. "Of course, we've been saying that for most of this year. I still like this group, but we're not exactly making it easier on ourselves."

Then again, how relevant is a closer to these 20-25 Orioles?

Benitez's last save came May 1 against the Minnesota Twins. The Orioles haven't enjoyed a save since Arthur Rhodes closed out the Twins May 3. Since, the bullpen has blown all five of its save chances while compiling a 7.22 ERA. The slump is only slightly more pronounced than their season standing -- nine saves in 15 chances with a 4.96 ERA.

Losing Benitez for the remainder of the cross-country road trip puts the bullpen into a "more precarious position," according to Flanagan. Given Sunday afternoon's five-run eighth inning and Tuesday night's six-run eighth, the thought is a terrifying one. An 11-man staff will be asked to do what a 12-man staff couldn't.

As of last night, Flanagan and Miller were unsure how Benitez's role would be filled for the eight games.

"Do you want to give somebody that [role] for the next eight days? Do you want to go day-to-day or lefty-righty?" asked Flanagan without answering.

Benitez's latest combustion is especially traumatic. The Orioles entrusted the closer's role to him when they failed to re-sign free agent Randy Myers. Benitez promised Miller he would mature and had given some positive early signs. He converted six of seven save chances and faced tough questions when he struggled. But because of inconsistent middle relief, Benitez recently had been summoned to complete the eighth inning, as well as to begin the ninth.

"I guess we felt all along he could be that guy. We didn't want to put that pressure on him early on, but he was certainly the first choice to wean into that role," said Flanagan. "But in fairness to Armando, he's really been trying to do two jobs out there -- his and Randy Myers'. Lately, we've had to bring him in the eighth. We've been three outs short lately. Whether it's three outs short from the starter, or from the middle it's been difficult.

"I wish I had an answer. He's not replaceable," Flanagan said.

Norm Charlton had allowed runs in his past three appearances before a scoreless two-thirds inning last night. Terry Mathews remains on the 15-day disabled list, where he has resided since May 2. He had allowed runs in six of nine outings. Though Orosco has been less culpable than most others, he has struggled recently against left-handed hitting. Rookie Sidney Ponson has surrendered 13 earned runs in his past 11 2/3 innings.

"The reality is it's never going to be as easy as you think it is. The last thing you think about is [Mike] Mussina going down twice in six weeks, [Scott] Kamieniecki going out, Armando leaving for eight games. Where everything looked smooth in spring, it certainly has been a roller-coaster six weeks for us," Flanagan said.

Bullpen woes

As the Orioles have fallen to the bottom of the AL East, the bullpen has fallen apart. Relievers have suffered five of the losses in the team's 2-8 slide before last night.

Terrible 10

Date Opponent, W/L, IP, H, ER, BB, SO, ERA

May 10 at Tampa Bay, L, 2, 3, 1, 0, 2, 4.50

May 11 at Minnesota, Did not appear

May 12 at Minnesota, L, 2 2/3 , 7, 4, 3, 5, 13.48

May 13 Cleveland, ND, 2, 1, 0, 0, 3, 0.00

May 14 Cleveland, L, 3 2/3 , 3, 1, 5, 6, 2.45

May 15 Tampa Bay, ND, 1 2/3 , 1, 1, 0, 1, 5.39

May 16 Tampa Bay, ND, 2, 0, 0, 0, 2, 0.00

May 17 Tampa Bay, L, 2, 3, 5, 5, 3, 22.50

May 18 Tampa Bay, ND, 5, 4, 1, 3, 5, 1.80

May 19 at New York, L, 3, 6, 8, 3, 1, 24.00

Totals, 0-5, 24, 28, 21, 19, 27, 7.88

Other memorable blowups

This is not the first time the bullpen has had problems this season.

Date Opponent, W/L, IP, H, ER, BB, SO, ERA

April 16 Chicago, ND, 4, 4, 3, 2, 3, 6.75

April 18 at Texas, ND, 4, 6, 4, 1, 4, 9.00

April 19 at Texas, ND, 4 1/3 , 6, 3, 1, 1, 6.24

April 22 at Anaheim, L, 2, 4, 3, 0, 2, 13.50

April 26 Oakland, ND, 6 2/3 , 8, 7, 6, 7, 9.45

April 29 at Chicago, ND, 4, 9, 10, 6, 3, 22.50

May 5 at Cleveland, L, 2 1/3 , 4, 3, 2, 1, 11.59

May 6 at Cleveland, ND, 4 2/3 , 9, 7, 5, 4, 13.49

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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