O's bullpen offers sigh of relief Able to fit relievers to their roles, Miller finally is rewarded

'They're all pitching well'

Starters' resurgence helps him piece puzzle

July 19, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- More remarkable than the Orioles' ninth consecutive win Friday night was the way it ended. Ray Miller rushed toward his bullpen and was rewarded with 3 2/3 scoreless innings in a 4-1 decision. No longer does that segment of his team resemble a quarantine ward.

"They're all pitching well," Miller said before last night's game against the Anaheim Angels. "It's nice to see our pitchers able to fit into roles instead of just grabbing whoever's available."

Thanks to a recovering starting rotation, Miller no longer winces when he motions for maligned left-hander Norm Charlton. He doesn't have to call upon Alan Mills to warm three consecutive days or rush Jesse Orosco into the ninth inning the day after he has pitched in the sixth.

Overall, the bullpen owned an unimpressive 4.50 ERA in 292 innings before last night and had surrendered a league-high 156 walks. However, over the past 21 games it carried a 2.12 ERA.

The recent turnaround coincides with a stabilized starting rotation. Before last night, the Orioles had produced

quality starts in eight of the past 13 games -- a minimum six innings and a maximum three earned runs.

Friday night, Miller began to "mix and match" at the first hint of trouble for veteran right-hander Doug Drabek, whom he desperately wanted to gain a first win since May 28. Before the All-Star break, Miller never would have been so trusting.

"I wanted to do that all along," Miller said.

Miller recognizes that the situation gave him the appearance of a defensive manager. Too often he had no way of justifying a reliever's use against specific hitters. A riddled rotation mutilated his options.

"Having an idea of when you're going to pitch or what situation you're going to be used in makes a big difference. It makes things so much simpler," Charlton said.

Charlton frequently has been asked to assume multiple innings in the same game. Friday night, Miller needed him only for left-handed hitter Jim Edmonds, who flied out with the tying run at second base in the sixth inning.

Ineffective in four starts after his June 9 acquisition from the San Diego Padres, Pete Smith has become a factor in relief. He contributed 1 1/3 shutout innings Friday night, preserving a decision for Drabek by holding a 2-1 score. In three relief appearances Smith has not allowed a run in 5 2/3 innings.

A grab bag approach has been replaced by a structured order. Even with Arthur Rhodes on the disabled list with a sore left elbow, Miller has placed Doug Johns and rookie Joel Bennett in long relief, Smith as middle man, and Mills and Orosco as the right-left setup men for Armando Benitez. Depending on matchups, Orosco may still receive opportunities to close.

"Before, it was misleading," Charlton said. "You might pitch only twice in four days, but in a lot of cases you also might get up on the two days in between. That's not being well-rested. Sometimes, that's hanging on."

The Orioles became spoiled last season. Rhodes, Benitez and Orosco were tremendously effective pitching in front of closer Randy Myers. But when Myers left for the Toronto Blue Jays via free agency, the Orioles chose not to fill the void. Though Benitez became the de facto closer, a gaping hole appeared in long relief.

The front office gambled that a strong rotation would gloss over the deficiency. Instead, it threatened to swallow the season after Mike Mussina, Scott Kamieniecki and Jimmy Key landed on the disabled list and untried arms such as Sidney Ponson, Nerio Rodriguez and Richie Lewis were pushed into the breach.

"I think last year was more the exception than the rule," said Mills, who watched most of last season's first half with a nerve-related injury. "It's rare when you can go through a whole year without getting shuffled around. In '96 Randy closed, but when he had a problem they used me. Then I pulled a groin and Armando got a shot. A lot's happened this year."

Miller counters accusations of bullpen abuse by citing the absence of any Orioles reliever from the league's top 10 in appearances. (Benitez ranked 11th before last night with 42 outings.)

However, the atrocious luck and equally dismal performance of the rotation caused Miller often to warm pitchers several times the same night. Any semblance of consistency vanished.

"Hopefully, all that's behind us," Miller said before last night's game. "I like the direction the rotation is giving. When things are right, this bullpen can produce."

For the first time this season, the words sounded like more than manufactured optimism.

Pub Date: 7/19/98

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