Rodriguez, O's revel in a perfect 5 Returning rookie gives Jays no hits 'til sixth as O's win 5th in row, 5-0

Webster drives in 4 runs

'We're trying to keep this ballclub together'

July 14, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

What is supposedly doomed to be a season of defeat continued as a month of discovery last night at Camden Yards. The Orioles extended their second-half winning streak to five in a 5-0 lockdown of the Toronto Blue Jays behind a brilliant and unexpected performance from starting pitcher Nerio Rodriguez and four RBIs from catcher Lenny Webster.

Rodriguez (1-2) was more than last night's winning pitcher. He became a metaphor for the Orioles' long stretch of nowhere that now teases with competent starting pitching and energetic defense.

Unimpressive in spring training, injured in May and finally banished to the disabled list, Rodriguez returned for his first start since May 25 with a confusing three-pitch assortment the Blue Jays never figured out. Rodriguez took the mound in the sixth inning still carrying a perfect game. He left after 68 pitches leading 4-0 and having allowed only one hit and one walk.

Hard to believe this is the same pitcher who left the field in Seattle seven weeks ago embarrassed, confused and scared by a shoulder that wouldn't work.

"I've just been working on mechanics. I've got my control back," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez allowed one hit in six innings and his bullpen never allowed the tying run to get on deck. The Blue Jays finished with three hits and had their hold on third place in the AL East trimmed to four games.

Rodriguez entered with an 0-2 record and 14.21 ERA in three major-league appearances this year. He was 1-4 at Triple-A Rochester and failed to clear six innings in any of five starts.

All this followed a slow start in spring training when a more convincing performance might have earned him a spot in the bullpen.

"He looked a little tentative in spring training," recalled manager Ray Miller. "He did have a little bit of shoulder tenderness. Maybe he threw a little too much in the winter."

After three indifferent outings at Rochester, Rodriguez was recalled with an 0-3 record to make a losing 4 1/3 -inning start against Anaheim. Optioned back to Rochester May 12, he was recalled on May 24 to make a start for Jimmy Key in Seattle the next day. To the Orioles' surprise, Rodriguez arrived with a stiff right shoulder, pitched 1 1/3 traumatic innings against the Mariners, was optioned again, then had the option voided due to injury.

The incident precipitated a blow-up between Miller and the player development department. Feelings between the two factions remain strained.

"[Rodriguez] spent many days in that trainer's room by himself watching games on TV. He deserves all the credit. There were some long hard days for him. He's come a long way since that start in Seattle," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said.

Miller threw laurels in all directions for Rodriguez's return. Trainer Richie Bancells put his right shoulder back together with a cuff weight program. When the shoulder strengthened, Flanagan and bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks had to restore Rodriguez's confidence and retool his mechanics. According to Miller, Rodriguez had lost confidence in everything, even where to stand on the rubber.

Last night, Rodriguez found enough confidence to throw consecutive changeups to Shawn Green with two outs and runners at second and third in the sixth inning. Green struck out and became Rodriguez's last hitter.

"If you're going to pitch in the big leagues, it's important to have those pitches," said Miller.

"That's why it's so important for the minor leagues to have people developing all their pitches and learning to read the bat and having the courage to go out and throw strike one. That's how you get in a 3-2 count and have the courage to throw something other than a fastball."

"In the pen tonight, he had velocity we weren't used to seeing in the past," said Flanagan, adding that Rodriguez's changeup and slider were the best he has thrown.

"He's 94, 95 [mph] wide-open, but he was 92, 93 with control," said Miller, gladly taking the exchange.

Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson was less than impressed. He attributed the loss to a slumping offense more than Rodriguez.

"What was he throwing, 92? You know, our guy's throwing 94, 95," Johnson said, though Juan Guzman's velocity hasn't kept him from a 4-11 record.

"So, you know we're not hitting. It's not like they're so much better than everybody else we've faced. We're just not hitting the ball."

Combined with left fielder B. J. Surhoff's three hits that led to three runs, Webster gave Rodriguez all the offense he needed. Facing Guzman, Webster blooped a two-out single to right field that scored Jeffrey Hammonds and Surhoff for a 2-0 lead.

Webster equaled his career record with four RBIs when he returned in the sixth inning to pull a two-run, two-out homer -- his sixth -- into the left-field seats, again scoring Surhoff.

"Whether I go 3-for-4 or 0-for-4, my job is to handle the pitchers. It's pretty pleasant to do both," said Webster.

To Webster and a veteran clubhouse, this isn't just about one win. It's about keeping together a clubhouse ticketed for dissolution.

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