Miller tells O's to `turn the page'

Pre-game meeting stresses a return to basics, length of season

April 21, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Moved by his pitching staff's sluggish start, the protracted loss of corner infielders Will Clark and Cal Ripken and the prospect of losing touch with the rest of the American League East, Orioles manager Ray Miller conducted a brief team meeting before last night's 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay.

Miller, referring to his address as "a little State of the Union," hoped to interrupt the season-long pitching slide that had left the Orioles with a 6.55 ERA, second-highest in the major leagues, and the dubious distinction of surrendering at least six runs in 11 of their first 12 games.

Miller did not single out individual players for criticism. Instead, he attempted to bolster the mood of a clubhouse stunned by its 3-9 start vs. division rivals.

"We've played 12 games. We've got 150 to go. Turn the page and get back to holding the other team down, eke out a couple runs and try to add to it every inning," Miller said.

While Orioles pitchers have absorbed most of the blame for the early collapse, the hitters entered last night's game stranding an average of 10.17 runners per game and hitting only .221 with two outs and runners in scoring position. They have produced a .410 slugging percentage -- they managed a .447 percentage last season -- compared to their opponents' .495.

Wherever the Orioles have gone they have been ridiculed as flat, even uninterested.

The characterization infuriates Miller, who considers it an illusion caused by poor pitching.

"What makes your club look good is getting off the field," he said. "When you're playing four-hour games and you're on the field for three hours of it, it's tough to look exciting."

High pitch counts, interminable games and an unacceptable walk-to-strikeout ratio are enough for the manager to draw his own conclusion.

"Pitchers are trying to do it all by themselves trying not to give up anything," observed Miller, considered one of the game's elite pitching coaches before named as Davey Johnson's successor in November 1997. "We've given up a ton of jam-shot hits where we were trying to pitch in. A guy fists a ball over the infield, then we turn around and walk somebody we shouldn't, then somebody gets a big hit and it's a three-run inning."

Or in last night's case, a five-run inning. And sure enough, Tampa Bay had two infield hits and a walk among its second-inning assault on Scott Erickson.

"It's not a case where you're not trying, but each pitcher is trying to be unhittable," Miller said before the game. "That's how you get yourself in trouble. You want to get back to the point where the pitcher starts the play for his team and the team makes the play."

Miller has consistently criticized the staff for high pitch counts, which have contributed to a crush of abbreviated outings by the starting rotation.

Orioles pitchers have walked 64 hitters in 111 innings. Starters have cleared the sixth inning only three times, leaving a thin bullpen to assume 47 1/3 innings -- about 3 2/3 per game. Though the Orioles have scored first seven times, they have led after six innings only three times.

Miller, who built much of his reputation around a simple approach free of complicated mechanical suggestions, urged his staff to return to such an approach. First-pitch strikes. Pitching low in the strike zone. Work quickly. All have been missing from the season's first two weeks.

"You can give up three ground-ball hits and not give up a run," said Miller. "But you can't walk a guy, hit a guy, jam a guy and then give up a double. That's a three- or four-run inning."

Miller strongly endorses the work of pitching coach Bruce Kison, but has suggested a simplified approach to each start. Rather than detail every nuance of opposing hitters, pitchers are being encouraged to work more to their strengths and work more quickly.

"I'm tired of 25-pitch innings," Miller said. "That means Mike Bordick has to set up 25 times behind 25 different pitches and go in 25 different directions. We need to get on and off the field."

Just as significant as Miller's motivational tactics, the Orioles will gain a 12th pitcher on Saturday when either Rocky Coppinger or Jason Johnson is promoted from Triple-A Rochester into the starting rotation. Fifth starter Doug Linton will move to the bullpen.

Cuba tickets

O's may sell as many as 10,000 tickets to public for rematch with Cuban team. (6D)

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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