Coppinger remembered in early season to forget

Sidelight

Little used in spring camp, maturing pitcher gets call

April 25, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

This is the definitive April yardstick for the Orioles: Rocky Coppinger, who was so far out of the team's plans in spring training that he merited only five innings of work, is in.

In the starting rotation. In Baltimore. In the good graces of an organization starved for a decent five innings.

Call it the Incredible Journey. Coppinger couldn't have expected this a month ago, when he was exiled to Rochester after giving up four home runs in those five tawdry spring training innings.

"I thought they lost hope with the spring I had," he said of the Orioles. "This shows me they have a little confidence in me."

Confident -- or perhaps desperate -- the Orioles will give the 25-year-old right-hander another chance when he starts today against Oakland. Called up last week as the 12th man on manager Ray Miller's battered staff, Coppinger sounds like a new, improved version of the promising but erratic pitcher who spent parts of the last three years with the Orioles.

The difference, he suggested, is in his head and his rehabilitated right arm.

"A little more brains," he said, searching for the bottom line. "Instead of just trying to throw, I have an idea of what I want to do. I have a game plan every time I go out. Before, I'd have a plan, but then things would happen and I'd abandon it."

It was the lesson of experience, of watching how the successful pitchers work. "When things get tight, they don't panic," Coppinger said. "They try to make quality pitches."

Then there is the issue of health. For the last two years, it's been a big issue.

In August 1997, Dr. James Andrews repaired a partial tear of the labrum in Coppinger's right shoulder, and removed a bone spur from the elbow.

It wasn't until Coppinger pitched his first game for Rochester earlier this month that he realized what he had missed. The zip on his fastball was back and the radar gun routinely registered 92, 93 mph.

"I threw and said `That's the old Rocky there.' "

In three starts for the Red Wings, Coppinger struck out 24 batters, tying for the International League lead. He went 1-1 with a 3.57 ERA, and allowed just one home run in 17 2/3 innings.

When he struck out 11 in six innings of a no-decision against Scranton last Sunday, Coppinger was not prepared for the windfall headed his way. The Orioles were hurting. When both Cal Ripken and Will Clark went on the disabled list, it opened the door for the former phenom.

"I didn't expect it," Coppinger said of the call-up. "They traded for [pitcher] Jason Johnson and rumor had it he'd be the first one to come up."

But Wednesday night at a hockey game, Coppinger got a call from manager Dave Machemer and found out he would beat Johnson to Baltimore.

"I was excited," Coppinger said. "I didn't ask too many questions. I didn't ask when I was pitching; I didn't care."

There was more good news. He would get a chance to start, bumping Doug Linton to the bullpen.

"To be thrown into the rotation here is good," he said. "I'm a starter and I pitch better as a starter."

There were times, though, when Coppinger thought his career would take him somewhere other than Camden Yards. Like 1997, when he battled a weight problem, a sore arm and his manager, Davey Johnson. One oft-heard complaint from Coppinger then was that Johnson pulled him too early.

"I've been at the top of the road and at the bottom," he said. "In '96 [10-6 in 22 starts], I was at the top. In '97, I was in the worst shape of my life. I dug my own grave. I said stupid things to the manager I shouldn't have said. I was a kid; a dumb kid who didn't know better.

"I thought they might have had enough of Rocky Coppinger."

It took almost two years to get over the arm problem. As a bonus, maturity seems to have coincided with his health. And while Coppinger is still a power pitcher, there is more to his repertoire than the old fastball diet.

"I have more of an arsenal now," he said. "Before, I was afraid to throw the changeup because they'd hit it. Today, I can go out and use the changeup or the breaking ball."

Consider it another measure of how far Coppinger has come. The Orioles can only hope it's far enough.

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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