Like Mariners, bullpen sailing not smooth

April 06, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Coffee, anyone?

How about a flannel shirt and some Microsoft stock?

If the Orioles' Opening Day defeat of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays yesterday is any indication, Camden Yards might become Seattle East this season.

That's Seattle as in the Mariners, a team famous for pounding opposing pitchers and struggling to hold leads late in games.

The Orioles scored enough runs to blow away the light-hitting Devil Rays yesterday, but their overhauled bullpen kept things interesting until the final out of a 225-minute game that belonged in Seattle's Kingdome.

Final score: Orioles by a field goal, 10-7.

Beginning to understand Mariners manager Lou Piniella's chronic stomach distress?

Short and sweet, this wasn't.

In the first game of the season, the Orioles' best hopes and worst fears for 1999 were realized.

Albert Belle contributed a home run and four RBIs, and Brady Anderson and Will Clark also had big offensive games. The offense looked as dangerous as Belle's glare.

"It's going to be an interesting year offensively," manager Ray Miller said.

But the pitching was shaky. Mike Mussina wasn't All-Star sharp, forcing the bullpen to protect a lead for four innings. It got the job done, but allowed three runs in those four innings -- not good enough on many nights.

"We let a couple [of runs] in," closer Mike Timlin said, "but we stood up at the right times and didn't let it go."

Hold on tight, here we go.

Not that the bullpen deserved a total thumbs-down. Mike Fetters pitched out of a tough jam when the game was still close. Arthur Rhodes was overpowering until Miller left him in too long. And Timlin closed out the ninth as a closer should, with authority.

Timlin then tackled an extra opponent in the clubhouse -- the prevailing notion that this is a team with a shaky bullpen.

"The guys we have down there are extreme quality, not even counting myself," he said. "Every one out there should be highly touted and extremely feared. We can [alternate] lefty-righty [pitchers]. We can [alternate] hard-soft [pitchers]. We can do anything out there."

This is a guy who came to the Orioles from the Mariners in the off-season, of course, so any bullpen is going to look good to him by comparison.

But he was adamant yesterday in denying that the Orioles' new 'pen is even distantly related to the Mariners' infamous bomb squads.

"Where I came from, that's all you heard, that [the bullpen] was the weak link of the team," Timlin said. "That's not us here. We have strong arms and level heads. Don't look for us to do too many things wrong."

File those words away.

It's a veteran group of relievers, that's for sure, including Rhodes and Jesse Orosco, the main holdovers from last year, and a collection of established major-leaguers such as Ricky Bones, Heathcliff Slocumb and Fetters. Not a headstrong kid in the bunch.

But let's face it, each of the latter group would still be with their former teams if their former teams wanted them.

Bones and Slocumb each opened their Orioles careers by hitting batters yesterday. Of the six batters they faced between them, five reached base. You can't start a season much worse.

On the other hand, Fetters came through just when it appeared the Devil Rays might regain the lead in the sixth. The Orioles were still ahead, 6-4, when he came on, but the bases were loaded with one out and Jose Canseco was coming up.

"Not exactly the way I wanted to start the season," Fetters said with a smile.

He walked Canseco, forcing in a run, then struck out Fred McGriff and got John Flaherty to ground out to end the inning. Lead preserved.

"I was excited that [Miller] had enough confidence in me to put me in that situation," Fetters said. "And I was excited to contribute to the win."

Rhodes entered at the point, looking sharp, and rolled through the day's two most impressive innings. But he came back for the ninth after the offense had scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth, and it was one inning too many. The Devil Rays scored twice and sent the tying run to the plate before bowing out for good. Pure Seattle.

Don't blame Rhodes, who wound up throwing 58 pitches, way too many for a fragile arm on a chilly day.

Anyway, Timlin came on (after Slocumb's two-batter hiccup) and finished the job, leaving the Orioles with one fewer bullpen journey to navigate.

And 161 games to go.

"We're going to give up some hits and runs," Fetters said, "because those are major-league hitters we're facing. But I think we're going to have a nice bullpen in the long run."

Maybe, maybe not. It's too early to know.

What we do know is this: If the bullpen blows up, so will a team with an $81 million payroll. It won't matter how many homers Albert hits.

And if the patchwork pieces happen to come together and form a solid bullpen, there's a chance for the Orioles to accomplish something real.

In other words, only the entire season depends on it.

Coffee jitters, anyone?

Pub Date: 4/06/99

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