O's pitch count -- 4? If race tightens, Miller may cut No. 5 starter from Orioles' rotation

Guzman key to equation

Mussina fresh enough to do it after 2 DL stays

August 04, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Ordinarily the recent exile of Doug Drabek, the disturbing degree of difficulty encountered last Thursday by Jimmy Key and nagging questions surrounding the health and effectiveness Scott Kamieniecki would leave a manager few options and even less reason for optimism.

However, bolstered by Friday's acquisition of Juan Guzman from Toronto, the Orioles still see a way to make a run for the AL wild card.

Reluctant to commit publicly, manager Ray Miller concedes that adopting a four-man rotation for the season's final weeks is an option if the Orioles can first pare the 9 1/2 -game gulf that separates them from the Boston Red Sox, who now lead the wild-card race. Without Guzman, acknowledge club officials, there would be no chance.

"I think it's an option," assistant general manager Kevin Malone said yesterday. "I still think it's early to be thinking hard about it. How we play and how the Red Sox go will dictate whether we need to make that final push. I think it's something we would consider down the stretch."

Miller left open the possibility before Sunday's game in Kansas City. Finding his motivation was not difficult.

The night before, Kamieniecki again frustrated his manager by consistently pitching behind and doing little to halt a jailbreak of eight stolen bases. Drabek is no longer considered an option and is a candidate for release. Following his first appearance since May 20, Key complained Thursday of aggravated pain in his problematic left shoulder. Miller hopes to learn today when he can be counted on for long relief.

Guzman's $5.25 million contract for next season automatically vests at 200 innings. He is projected to make at least 11 more starts, seemingly making the appearance clause a formality. The Orioles are confident enough in the stability of his right shoulder that they project Guzman as fit for any four-man arrangement.

"I think that's what makes him so attractive," said Malone, who orchestrated the trade that culminated in the Orioles sending rookie pitcher Nerio Rodriguez and outfield prospect Shannon Carter to the Blue Jays. "It should not only help us in the short term, but in the long term. It's a very positive situation for all involved, not only for Juan but for the Orioles. It's a plus-plus."

Guzman underwent shoulder surgery last September for removal a bone spur. The Orioles' uncertainty over his condition postponed a deal about 18 hours until team orthopedic Dr. Michael Jacobs gave his blessing.

"There are no questions about his health. He's taken the ball and been healthy this year," Malone said of Guzman, who has thrown 145 innings. "We're optimistic he's moving in the right direction."

Miller responded favorably to the concept of a four-man rotation Sunday but hastened the move likely wouldn't occur in the near future. Should the Orioles make a move on the Red Sox, Miller could skip the spot occupied by Kamieniecki in favor of squeezing more from a turn of Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Guzman and rookie Sidney Ponson.

Then-manager Davey Johnson tried the concept during the Orioles' wild-card drive in 1996. He obtained mixed results. Mussina much prefers working on four days' rest. Though he won three starts on three days' rest during August, running up a six-game win streak, Mussina flattened out in September. He failed in four tries to win his 20th game and was dull in two postseason starts.

Allowed to remain on four days' rest all of last season, Mussina compiled a 3.04 ERA the final two months before producing one of the most dominant stretches in postseason history.

Miller cites Mussina's two stays on the disabled list this season as leaving him fresher for the potential move. "Moose has a lot of innings left in him," Miller said. "I'd be a little more concerned about Erickson at this point."

Erickson leads the league in innings pitched with 172 2/3 and has struggled in his last two starts following two unwavering months.

The rapidly maturing Ponson has won his last four decisions, including a career-high seven-inning start against the Royals Sunday.

Just as the rookie hasn't lost since June 26, Mussina hasn't lost since June 27. In his last eight starts he is 4-1 with a 3.17 ERA but pitches tonight with a strained right groin.

Despite an unspectacular 6-12 record, Guzman finished his Blue Jays career with a rush. In his last eight starts he owns a 2.02 ERA despite a 4-3 record.

The schedule that ground the Orioles last year now cuts them a break. The absence of any makeup games means they do not face the prospect of late-season doubleheaders that further tax well-worn staffs. Last year the Orioles played four doubleheaders after Aug. 14, including two on consecutive days in September, as their bullpen withered during a 13-16 final month.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7: 35 TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Tigers' Bryce Florie (5-5, 4.52) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (9-5, 3.58)

1% Tickets: Scattered singles remain

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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