Erickson starting point for resurgent rotation Finding stride, he's been long on innings, success

Sidelight

July 18, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Starting pitching has carried the Orioles into some pretty scary places this year, including a brief layover in the American League East cellar. Scott Erickson has played tour guide back to credibility.

The only Orioles starter to take the ball every scheduled turn, Erickson extended the resurgent team's win streak to eight Thursday night against the Texas Rangers. Working in 100-degree heat, Erickson used 127 pitches in seven innings, allowing eight hits but walking only one.

"I didn't pitch too badly. We scored some runs and it gave us a little breathing room," said Erickson. "I'd get two strikes on a hitter and not put them away."

Erickson, 10-7 with a 3.99 ERA, struggled early this year with mechanics that left him too upright before delivery. As a result, Erickson would land heel first, jarring his head and causing a loss of control.

Pitching coach Mike Flanagan discovered the glitch in a side session between starts and asked his pupil to lengthen his stride by about three inches. The slight adjustment permitted Erickson to regain command. Instead of the dull slider responsible for his frustrating six-week funk, he rediscovered the form that has made him the American League's most dominant ground ball pitcher the last three seasons.

"He's a little bit more of a pitcher now," said Flanagan, nothing less than awed by Erickson's ability to consistently carry a game into the seventh inning or beyond. Erickson has six complete games, tying him with Cleveland's Bartolo Colon for the American League lead. He also leads in innings pitched (155 2/3 ), ranks fifth in strikeouts (120) and represents a salvation to a rotation deprived of a steady turn.

"You look at a guy like [Mike] Mussina. Once he gets himself correct mechanically he tends to stay there. That's a big thing. Scotty is approaching that level where he finds something and it stays with him," said Flanagan.

Since "finding" himself in Minnesota on May 11, nothing but good has come Erickson's way. He has failed to clear at least six innings in only one of his last 13 starts and allowed more than three earned runs in just one of his last nine outings.

When manager Ray Miller lists his team MVP candidates for the first half, he names B. J. Surhoff, Rafael Palmeiro, Lenny Webster and one pitcher. Erickson.

Miller's theory goes beyond mechanics. He believes the staggering five-year, $32 million contract extension Erickson signed May 13 has allowed him to be more open-minded about tinkering.

Against the Rangers he mixed changeups and curveballs among his traditional assortment of a boring fastball and sinker.

"I think that kind of security means a lot," said Miller. "He can think beyond this season a little more. I know one thing: if he can ever throw a 60-mph pitch for strikes off his 93, 94, 95 [mile per hour fastball], you'll see guys taking some funny hacks up there."

Traditionally a superior second-half pitcher, Erickson may now become the cornerstone for a rehabilitating rotation. A fitness devotee who runs every day he doesn't pitch, Erickson was less effective during last season's second half.

His ERA actually declined over an 11-win first half but a combination of poor support and poorly placed mistakes dropped him to 5-3 after the All-Star break.

"I'm just looking at it as a start-to-start situation," Erickson said earlier this month. "That's the only way you can look at it.

"There's no reason looking too far when you're in the situation we're in."

Pub Date: 7/18/98

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