Key aims to shoulder bullpen burden

August 19, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

The issue isn't whether Jimmy Key is capable of switching to the bullpen and becoming an effective relief pitcher after more than 13 years as a starter.

"There's no doubt I can do it," Key said before last night's game at Camden Yards.

He has thrown 3 2/3 innings of hitless relief in four appearances over the past 12 days, so it's hard to argue.

"If he can get out there, it won't surprise me at all" to see him thrive, Orioles manager Ray Miller said.

But can he get "out there" as often as Miller wants? Will his sore left shoulder allow it?

It wouldn't allow him to start for the Orioles after late May. Nor would it allow him to return to the rotation in July after two months of rest and rehab.

Heck, Key's shoulder might just up and tell him to retire after this season.

But all Key, 37, wants from it now is an inning every other night.

"It," Key said, "will dictate what happens."

If it holds up to the lesser demands of bullpen pitching, the Orioles will have added a major asset for the stretch drive. Key is one of the smartest and most consistent pitchers of his generation, a winner of 180 games and two World Series clinchers.

What a weapon that'd be coming out of the bullpen in the late innings.

Sure, he is more of a luxury than a necessity with lefties Jesse Orosco and Arthur Rhodes already entrenched in key bullpen roles. But Rhodes is coming off an injury himself, so you never know. And Key would have a role in his share of games regardless of who else is available.

Key doesn't care if his role is large or small. He just wants to contribute in any way, as he did Monday night with an inning of scoreless relief in a one-run win.

"He doesn't like being paid and not contributing," Miller said. "[Monday] night was the first time in a while I saw him smiling and having fun."

Key said, "It's a little, bitty something I can do to help every few days. I'm not going to be out there every day, but when I'm out there, I think I can help."

He can't do it every day. Not even close.

"I threw last night and today my arm doesn't feel very good," he said yesterday. "It's the [getting] up and down [in the bullpen] that kills me. I warmed up three times last night. Once [the shoulder] is loose, it's fine. But once it cools off, it's tough to get loose again."

At some point, that will have to change. No one is more aware of it than Key.

"No club can carry a pitcher who is available only one inning every three days," he said.

Miller agreed. "We're going to come to a point where we're going to have to see" if Key can pitch in two games in a row, he said.

As of now, he'd have trouble making the playoff roster; he can help the Orioles try to overtake the Red Sox in the wild-card race, but he'd need to become more available to pitch in October.

But it's still August, and no one is rushing to judgments any time soon, particularly with Key pitching so well in his new role.

Pitching coach Mike Flanagan has high hopes for what might happen.

"I expect his velocity and command to go up" because of the lighter load, said Flanagan, who moved from the rotation to the bullpen late in his career. "If Jimmy sees it in his mind as a fulfilling job, I could see him doing it for a couple more years. It's up to him."


"Right now, I'd say no, I don't want to do this [after 1998]," said Key, who has ruled out having a seventh pitching-related operation to extend his career. "But let's get through this season and see where I am arm-wise. I'm not going to make any decisions until I get home [after the season]."

Not that he doesn't see his new role as fulfilling. Even though he wanted to remain a starter upon returning from the disabled list in July, he has respect for what relievers do. He pitched 63 games in relief as a rookie with the Blue Jays in 1984.

"I think it's a harder job than starting, to be honest," Key said. "When you mess up as a starter, your team has the whole game to catch up. But when you mess up out of the bullpen, you basically blow the game. It's a pressure thing. Some guys can handle it. Some can't."

Key can handle it, that's clear. One of the game's best big-game pitchers, he already has pitched in several close games in the past two weeks.

It's fun," he said. "It's totally different from what I have done for 14 years. It sheds new light on the game."

He can handle the job. That's not the problem. He isn't a classic, hard-throwing dominator by any means, but he throws strikes, keeps the ball down and knows how to hold runners on base.

In that sense, he's suited naturally to the job. He could and should thrive in the bullpen.

But will his shoulder allow it?

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Devil Rays' Rolando Arrojo (11-9, 3.55) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (11-6, 3.43)

Tickets: 5,600 remain

AL wild-card race

NTC W-L ..... Pct. ... GB

Boston .... 73-50 ... .593 ... --

Orioles ... 67-58 ... .536 ... 7

Texas ..... 65-59 ... .524 ... 8 1/2

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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