Twins' Milton sees odds shifting

Sidelight

With year under his belt, ex-Terp thinks big today

May 02, 1999|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Same time, same place and same situation.

But this time, Minnesota pitcher Eric Milton believes there could be a different ending against Orioles ace Mike Mussina.

Milton, a 23-year-old left-hander, lost a 2-0 decision to Mussina on May 3 last year, with 60 friends and family members attending the game at Camden Yards. Although the number of friends and family could be down by half today, Milton prefers to point at the numbers that have grown.

Last year at Camden Yards, he was making just his sixth major-league start. Today, he will be starting his 38th game.

"There's no substitute for experience," said Milton, who grew up in Bellefonte, Pa., and was a first-round pick by the New York Yankees in 1996. "You really can't beat a full year in the major leagues. And in the off-season, I dedicated myself to be in better shape."

Milton's only mistakes against the Orioles last year turned out to be two fastballs to Rafael Palmeiro and Eric Davis, each of whom hit a bases-empty homer. He finished by retiring 14 of the last 15 batters for a four-hitter and his first career complete game.

"I went up against one of the best and he got the better of it," said Milton, who was the only full-scholarship player for the University of Maryland in 1994-96. "It was fun going out there to compete."

Milton has since moved up from the Twins' No. 5 starter to the No. 2 spot behind Brad Radke, but has little to show for his improvement. He is 0-1 in five starts, with a 5.28 ERA.

However, Minnesota has won four times when he's started and Milton has limited batters to a .245 average, best among Twins starters.

"The thing I noticed, he came into camp a little bigger, a littler stronger and he's been giving us some quality starts, six or seven-plus innings," Twins catcher Terry Steinbach said. "Last year, he didn't quite get that far. That's a major, major step right there."

There have been subtle changes.

Milton will now pitch around certain batters if first base is empty. He's added a slider and has more confidence in his breaking pitches.

And unlike last season, he's been able to fight through tough situations early. In his last start, against Boston, he allowed four runs in the second inning, but kept his composure to shut down the Red Sox over the next five innings for his fourth no-decision.

But it might come down to how much the Orioles -- and not Milton -- have changed since their last meeting. The Orioles are 1-5 against left-handed starters this year. Overall, they're batting .234 against left-handed pitchers.

The Orioles, the second-worst-hitting American League club, have also averaged eight runners left on base this season and have scored two runs or fewer in four of their last nine games.

"When a team's struggling, that's when you want to face them," Milton said. "But you have to be on top of your game. They're still major-league hitters and you have to get them out."

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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