Middle relief leaves Miller at wits' end Manager says he's ready to dump struggling vets


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

NEW YORK -- No longer confident his shell-shocked bullpen can be salvaged, Orioles manager Ray Miller says he is prepared to dispose of veteran pitchers in favor of less experienced but potentially more productive arms.

"I need a right-hander who can come in and get two right-handers out and a left-hander who can do the same against left-handers," Miller said. "That would seem a reasonable expectation to me."

Miller's frustration is directed primarily at Terry Mathews and Norm Charlton, his projected right-handed and left-handed middle relievers who have yet to instill any confidence in a manager unable to create a dependable stepladder.

Miller vented about the bullpen two weeks ago. He is beyond protecting inconsistent veterans who have struggled with control and been unreliable in favorable matchups. He has lobbied to no avail for the club to give him younger arms such as Bowie's Chris Fussell. Whenever Rocky Coppinger is judged rehabilitated from shoulder and elbow problems, Miller says he has a spot waiting.

"[His name] came up two or three weeks ago before he had a couple of rough starts," said Miller.

Coppinger hasn't regained the velocity at Double-A Bowie that he exhibited before enduring a frayed rotator cuff. However, the Orioles' former No. 4 starter has allowed only three hits and a run in his last 11 innings, covering two starts.

Other options have been weighed. One calls for a trade for an undistinguished starting pitcher then converting him to the bullpen. Another idea advanced by Miller would have the club rotate pitching prospects through Baltimore. The young pitcher would be used much as 21-year-old Mike Johnson was last season, in blowouts and less-pressurized situations.

Miller's bullpen carries a 4.99 ERA while converting only 17 of 27 save opportunities. But problems in middle relief, an area that cried for help as early as spring training, have become the most pressing. Opponents are bashing Charlton for a .328 average and Mathews at a .381 clip. Miller admits to avoiding the two in several home games but insisted after Wednesday's 6-3 loss that such protection is over.

"I cannot not use a couple of people. I've got to use everybody. You can't blow everybody out," Miller says.

Already dependable Arthur Rhodes has begun to show signs of wear from 28 appearances and a league-high 54 innings in relief. Alan Mills and Jesse Orosco are each on pace for 70 appearances. The 70-game projection is especially staggering for Mills, who usually pitches more than one inning.

"I need someone in middle relief who can throw the ball over the plate. That's all," said Miller.

Charlton has yet to reverse his profound control problems from last season. He has been scored upon in 16 of 29 appearances. Wednesday night against the Mets he surrendered no runs of his own but threw two wild pitches and walked a batter while allowing two inherited runners to score.

Mathews, saddled with a 7.02 ERA and 29 base runners in 16 2/3 innings, has appeared three times since returning from the disabled list June 17. Mathews maintains his most recent effort -- two-inning effort Wednesday night that included surrendering a bases-empty home run to Mike Piazza -- was encouraging. "For the first time this year I really felt comfortable out there," he said.

Mathews realizes talk is no longer cheap. It is worthless. He has expressed optimism several times this year only to retreat without offering proof.

"I know if it doesn't happen soon the situation is probably going change," Mathews says. "They've stayed with me through a lot -- a bad second half, an injury, the DL. After all I've been through the last year, why else would I still be here?"

One answer: there is no one else.

Miller says he has encountered resistance when applying for help from within. Sentiment exists that rushing prospects could scar their confidence.

"Maybe there's nothing there. All I can do is ask," Miller says, no longer worried about internal political correctness.

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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