Future brighter because of 'pen options Relievers' stock rising as starters pitch longer


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

CLEVELAND -- The tried-and-true formula holds. Given a healthy starting rotation able to carry a game into late innings, the Orioles have shown since the All-Star break that their bullpen was more a victim of stress than incompetence in the first half.

Sure, there have been casualties. Left-hander Norm Charlton was released last month in Detroit, only to be picked up by the Atlanta Braves. Hobbled starters Jimmy Key and Doug Drabek have been disabled but have received ample cover from a group strengthened since the exile of temporary fifth starter Pete Smith.

After last night's 7 1/3 scoreless innings in a victory over the Cleveland Indians, the bullpen is 18-14. The bullpen had a 4.28 ERA entering the game, its lowest since April 28. The improvement results from a healthier second half in which the relievers have compiled a 2.44 ERA while providing a close impersonation of last season's seamless force.

"It all starts with getting people healthy and having the rotation take games deeper," pitching coach Mike Flanagan said. "The smaller the gap you have to bridge, the easier it is to keep people in specific roles."

The byproduct is a well-ordered structure in contrast to the mess that frustrated manager Ray Miller and often confused its membership.

"It's a much better situation when you can mix-and-match," said Miller, who retains a bullpen of five right-handers and two left-handers. "It's like I said for most of the first half to anybody who wanted to listen. When you've got people hurting and having to go to the bullpen every night early, you don't have the luxury of keeping people where you would like to have them."

The results have been obvious.

Closer Armando Benitez has left behind the emotional baggage given him by his May meltdown in Yankee Stadium that earned him an eight-game suspension for hitting Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez. At 41, Jesse Orosco has become better the

deeper he goes into the season. Alan Mills remains one of the league's best percentage pitchers with men on base.

"I don't know why it's happening and I don't really care," Mills said. "I just want it to keep going."

Handed the closer role abandoned by Randy Myers, Benitez has converted 26 of 28 opportunities the past two seasons, including 17 of 18 chances this year. Only the Boston Red Sox's Tom Gordon has a higher percentage. Benitez strung together a string of 13 consecutive scoreless outings before surrendering runs in three consecutive games, including a ninth-inning loss Tuesday to Tampa Bay. He recovered to get a save last night.

Benitez still gets hurt too much with his slider and he has virtual- ly abandoned the changeup he experimented with in spring training.

While the Orioles put his name in play before the July 31 trade deadline, they rebuffed the Atlanta Braves' offer of second-string prospects.

Orosco has made this a year to remember. Not only has he become the fourth pitcher to reach 1,000 relief appearances in a career, he has converted seven saves and allowed only one run in his past 25 outings. Left-handers are batting .179 against him.

Mills suffered badly during the first half as Miller asked him to stir frequently. With the bullpen in order, he has again become an intimidating pitcher. Mills has allowed runs in only one of his past 10 appearances, and compiled a 2.41 ERA in his past 25 games to lower his overall ERA from 4.84 to 3.64.

Mills' inconsistent control has proven more of a problem when asked to start innings than when he inherits situations. The league is hitting only .153 against him with runners on base. He has allowed only four of 31 inherited runners (12.9 percent) to score.

The arrival of Smith and a steady performance by another deposed fifth starter, left-hander Doug Johns, have created order from chaos. Smith, a flop as a starter, has surrendered only two runs in 16 1/3 relief innings. He earned his first American League win on July 30 in Detroit as his reward for three solid innings. Johns last night held together a potential fiasco as he followed Sidney Ponson with a solid stint of 3 1/3 innings, allowing only two base runners.

"You have options now," Miller said. "Before, there weren't too many. You basically had to come in every day and ask who could pick up a ball. That's not a good way to go."

Pub Date: 8/14/98

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