Between drops, Linton finds 5 innings of sun

Sidelight

Activated starter juggles forecast, Jays, 2 1/2-year wait

April 12, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Doug Linton's concentration was being pulled in so many directions yesterday, it's a wonder he didn't stumble into the wrong clubhouse. There were scouting reports to review on the afternoon's opponent, and weather reports to check that would determine if he made his first major-league start since 1996 or began packing for the minors.

This wasn't just a game, it was his career.

Waiting through a 32-minute rain delay, Linton turned in five serviceable innings and left with a 4-2 lead. With his first victory since Sept. 11, 1996, in his grasp, Linton handed it over to the Orioles' bullpen and watched it come apart.

"Every time you go out there you want to keep the team in the game," he said after Toronto rallied for a 9-5 victory at Camden Yards. "This one got away from us."

This one also was a long time coming for Linton, 34, the club's invisible man until being activated before the game. He had been among the Orioles' last two spring cuts, but stayed in Baltimore rather than report to Triple-A Rochester, with a fifth starter needed for the first time yesterday. He dressed for each game, threw in the bullpen to stay loose and tried to be patient.

The forecast called for heavy showers yesterday, and if the game had been called Linton would have reported to Rochester. "I thought we had no chance of playing," he said. "I kept myself calm by saying, `OK, we're going to play, I just don't know when.' It seems like it's not easy for me."

How true. Linton missed all of the 1997 season after undergoing "Tommy John" surgery on his right elbow, then spent last year with Minnesota's Triple-A affiliate in Salt Lake. A productive stint in Puerto Rico this winter led the Orioles to sign him to a minor-league contract, and Linton responded by allowing two earned runs in 20 innings this spring.

He didn't throw more than 66 pitches in any of the exhibition games, and hadn't faced hitters since April 3 in Birmingham, Ala. Predictably, he tired in the fifth, but was able to retire Tony Fernandez on a pop-up on his 88th and last pitch. Walking off the mound, Linton pounded his fist against his thigh, the same hand he later would have X-rayed in the clubhouse.

Linton had been hit just below the palm by a one-hopper from Norberto Martin in the second inning, instinctively reaching for the ball as it came up the middle. He took a few warm-up tosses and stayed in. X-rays were negative.

"It's pretty sore here," he said, pressing on the tender area, "but it's fine."

The game's first batter, Jose Cruz, reached on an infield hit when Linton missed the bag after taking the throw from first baseman Will Clark. Two outs later, Carlos Delgado drove Albert Belle to the warning track in right-center.

"I said an expletive when it left his bat," said Linton, who allowed five hits, walked three and struck out two. "He hit it good. He just got it way up in the air."

Given a 4-0 lead heading into the second, Linton continued to pitch deep into the count. A two-out single by Alex Gonzalez scored Darrin Fletcher, who had doubled, and the Blue Jays loaded the bases before Linton retired Shawn Green on a shot back to the mound -- this time knocking down the ball with his glove hand.

He faced the minimum number of batters over the next two innings, but two walks and a two-out single off the right-field wall by Delgado in the fifth sliced another run off the lead.

"I felt I could have pitched better," said Linton, whose next turn comes Saturday in Toronto, where he broke into the majors in '92. "I didn't have command of my curve, but I'm not disappointed. I'm happy that I made good pitches at the right time."

Manager Ray Miller said he thought Linton "kind of hit a wall" in the fifth. He had trouble keeping the ball down then, a common sign of fatigue.

"He had a good breaking ball early, and he got a ground-ball double play when he needed it," said pitching coach Bruce Kison, who went to the mound in the third and fifth. "His pitches did start to elevate, and we thought he had done all we expected him to do, which was give us five or six innings. Maybe his next time out he can stretch that out a little bit."

At least next time he'll pitch indoors, where the weather forecast will be the least of his concerns.

Pub Date: 4/12/99

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