With everything to lose, Timlin promptly seals win

April 11, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

He's a closer. He's supposed to block out distractions. But it's a good thing Mike Timlin didn't stop to think yesterday about all that was at stake.

From a narrow view, he needed to protect a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning and apply the finishing touch to a masterful performance by Mike Mussina.

In the wider view, he needed to make sure the Orioles ended the day 2-3 instead of 1-4, with Doug Linton starting today and the next three games in New York.

And in the sky-is-falling department, did we mention that the first Toronto hitter was Tony Fernandez, the veteran who knocked the Orioles out of the '97 postseason with an 11th-inning homer off Armando Benitez?

And that the second hitter was Jose Cruz, the player the Blue Jays acquired from Seattle for Timlin and Paul Spoljaric on July 31, 1997?

Good thing Timlin ignored every nagging detail.

Good thing he was perfect in the ninth, requiring only nine pitches to preserve the Orioles' 1-0 victory at Camden Yards.

Nine pitches!

Think back to past Orioles closers -- Benitez, Randy Myers, Gregg Olson, even Don Stanhouse. At nine pitches, they were just getting started.

"Days like today, that's awesome," Mussina said. "A one-run game, he gets two ground balls and a punchout. An uneventful ninth -- that's awesome."

A blown save by Timlin, and heaven knows if the Orioles would have come out of it. A fourth straight loss, and they would have been in serious trouble.

The journeyman Linton faces former Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen today, and then it's on to Yankee Stadium, where the Orioles were 0-6 last season.

The New York series will be a major test -- the probables are Juan Guzman vs. Ramiro Mendoza, Scott Erickson vs. David Cone and Mussina vs. Roger Clemens.

But at least now the Orioles aren't looking at a potential 1-8 start, knowing that the Yankees starters have allowed only 16 hits in 34 2/3 innings, working to a 1.82 ERA.

Heck, with a victory today, the Orioles would improve to 3-3, and the way Albert Belle is mashing, no pitcher is safe, not even one in pinstripes.

If this team emerges as a contender, it will remember yesterday as a turning point. Remember Mussina's seven shutout innings. Remember Timlin's quiet, lethal ninth.

The game likely was one of the five best you will see this season, featuring a decisive play at the plate in the first, a Cruz missile hit straight at Belle to end a bases-loaded threat in the fourth, a soaring drive by Carlos Delgado off Arthur Rhodes in the eighth that sailed just foul.

When Timlin entered the game, he had converted 19 of his last 20 save chances dating to the All-Star break with Seattle last season, and including his Orioles debut on Opening Day.

Still, this was his first major test in Baltimore, his first one-run game, his first all-or-nothing moment. He was pitching before a crowd of 43,700. He was pitching for a team with an $84 million payroll.

Good thing he ignored it all.

"When I came up in Toronto, we had sellout crowds all the time. We had Duane Ward and Tom Henke ahead of me. We were in the pennant race in '91, '92 and '93," Timlin said.

"It's no different. The amount of the payroll doesn't make a difference. It's just a matter of going out and doing the job that I need to do and this team needs from me."

Fair enough, but Timlin has never closed for a team with expectations this high. He also has never closed with the security of a four-year, $16 million contract.

Orioles general manager Frank Wren was criticized for awarding a deal of that length to a 33-year-old reliever with only one 20-save season, but could it be that the contract was the final piece of Timlin's development?

"When a team signs you to a four-year deal, they're obviously showing a lot of confidence in you," said Hentgen, Timlin's former teammate in Toronto. "It made him relax, and helped his confidence, too."

Timlin said he is essentially the same pitcher he was with the Blue Jays, except that he is more willing to throw certain pitches in certain situations.

And yes, he said the contract helps.

"It makes a difference when they say, `Look we want you to do the job,' " Timlin said. "It's just a natural thing. If they have confidence in me, my confidence goes up."

Manager Ray Miller worked him an inning in Friday night's 7-4 loss to the Blue Jays, keeping him sharp. Yesterday Timlin looked entirely comfortable, retiring Fernandez and Cruz on grounders and striking out Alex Gonzalez looking for the final out.

"That last pitch, I don't know what the numbers said, but it looked like he threw it right through a funnel, right on the black with heat on it," Miller said.

Added Mussina, "He was pumping it right in there with movement, hard sliders. That's just quality closer material right there."

Reliever Jesse Orosco agreed, calling Timlin "a great pickup." Hentgen spoke with admiration for his former teammate, saying "his stuff speaks for itself."

"He's a sinkerball pitcher, great for this ballpark," said Rich Amaral, who played with Timlin in Seattle and joined him in Baltimore as a free agent. "Lots of times when he gets hit, it's just little ground balls that trickle through the infield."

Well, Camden Yards isn't SkyDome, and it isn't the Kingdome. The grounders don't get through as easily on natural grass. And if yesterday was any indication, maybe Mike Timlin won't have it as hard.

Pub Date: 4/11/99

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