Erickson makes his pitch for a regular routine

Inside the Orioles

April's erratic schedule wreaks havoc with AL's most durable pitcher

April 18, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- Scott Erickson likes his music loud, his golf free and his workload heavy. He is the most durable pitcher in the American League, having led it in innings pitched and starts last season.

Erickson loves to pitch, if not in a game then on the side twice between starts. Because of his insatiable appetite for innings, April and its plentiful days off represents his most uncomfortable month. And because it's uncomfortable for Erickson, it's doubly so for the Orioles' rotation.

The rotation of Mike Mussina, Juan Guzman, Erickson, Sidney Ponson and Doug Linton has so far been a slow starter, importing a 6.26 ERA into this weekend's series against the Toronto Blue Jays. Only Mussina has pitched to expectations, winning twice and being denied a third decision by six unearned runs Thursday. Erickson, who needs routine almost as much as he likes innings, has scuffled in his role as innings monster.

"I'm still getting ready," he told reporters after Wednesday's 14-7 loss. "I need to pitch, that's pretty much what it amounts to."

The schedule conspires against him. The Orioles receive a day off in six of the season's first seven weeks, creating upheaval within the rotation. Erickson, who embraces the thought of pitching on three days' rest, is typically made to pitch with five days between starts.

"It's not something I'm really used to," Erickson said. "I'm not used to having things this spaced out. It's an adjustment."

Just as hurtful as the rotation's inflated ERA is its atrophied innings. Through nine games the average start was less than 5 1/3 innings. The effects on a veteran six-man bullpen have been predictable.

"I'm pitching every sixth day. For me, that's a tough way to get going," Erickson said. "I didn't build innings in spring training and it's tough to build innings pitching every sixth day."

Manager Ray Miller needs him to find a way. The rotation is structured because of Erickson's ability to give his bullpen rest before the less-experienced Ponson and Linton take the ball.

As No. 2 starter, Guzman is as gifted as he is prone to injury. He has averaged seven wins the last four seasons, hardly a reflection of a career that began with a 40-11 rush. Guzman is 40-56 since.

In 13 appearances as an Oriole, Guzman has yet to construct consecutive quality starts. Along with Guzman's desire to skip the team's March 28 exhibition in Havana, Miller inserted him between Mussina and Erickson because of his status as a six-inning pitcher. Placing Guzman behind Erickson creates the possibility of three consecutive days of hard labor for a makeshift bullpen. (The effects have been made obvious by Erickson's stutter start.)

While the Orioles played the part of political globe-trotters last month, Erickson chafed at having his routine disrupted, something Miller suggests might still contribute to the pitcher's funk.

Erickson only wants innings. By last May he had pitched 39 1/3 and received five decisions. Entering Tuesday's start in Tampa Bay, Erickson has pitched 10 2/3 innings and owns two losses. It's likely he will end the month with fewer than 30 innings.

Erickson, who has eclipsed 220 innings the last three seasons including last year when he shouldered a league-high 251 1/3, recently approached Miller and pitching coach Bruce Kison about pitching on four days' rest regardless of days off. While Erickson believes it a means toward building himself up, his manager sees it as a disruption to the rest of the rotation.

"I'm sure it's bothering him a little bit having the extra day of rest," Miller said during last week's series in New York. "But when the team has every Monday off, the only way you can pitch Scotty any more frequently is to pitch him on three days' rest. The worst thing you can do is advance the rotation in April and then end up wondering what happened to your starters in September."

Meanwhile, Erickson simmers. "I made a suggestion. I guess it's not going very far with some people."

"What am I supposed to do, pitch other guys every seven days?" Miller asks rhetorically.

Behind Erickson, Ponson remains both an organizational treasure and a riddle. No less a figure than Jim Palmer has likened Ponson to himself as a second-year pitcher. At 20, Palmer won 15 games and became the youngest pitcher in history to pitch a World Series shutout during the Orioles' 1966 sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

However, weight and conditioning concerns have temporarily sullied Miller's infatuation with the 22-year-old. Indeed, Miller has repeatedly suggested that Ponson would be better served working in long relief for a season. But an inability to trade for another starter coupled with a lingering hamstring injury to Scott Kamieniecki has eliminated that possibility.

The fifth rung in the Orioles' rotation belongs to Linton for now. Linton, whose career survived "Tommy John" elbow surgery and nearly a three-year absence from the major leagues, is considered a potentially valuable swingman but is not envisioned as a consistent starter.

Erickson understands his importance. After Jimmy Key, Kamieniecki and Mussina landed on the disabled list last May, Erickson constructed a 3-0 June while averaging 7 1/3 innings per outing. (He averaged 6 2/3 innings in April and just shy of 7 in May.) He now waits to put together a season. The Orioles can only hope his effectiveness outpaces his patience.

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