Orosco down, not out after all these years

42-year-old lefty isn't rattled as April again blooms a high ERA

`Gotten things worked out'

Veteran not spared from Miller criticism

May 26, 1999|By JOE STRAUSS | JOE STRAUSS,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Jesse Orosco speaks with the calm of someone who since 1979 has seen it all, or at least very much. He has been to the mound more than 1,000 times and struck out more than 1,000 hitters in more than 1,100 innings. He knows the game, knows his role and knows himself.

Right now Orosco knows he's struggling. Like many at an advanced age, Orosco takes time to get going. Except for celebrating his birthday on the 21st, April is his unkindest month as suggested by last season's 9.95 ERA for the month in 10 appearances and this year's 9.39 ERA, also in 10 outings.

Good teams can afford patience. Cursed by its $84 million payroll, this Orioles team fidgets. A faltering starting rotation caused manager Ray Miller to repeatedly raid the bullpen in early innings, often dropping Orosco into blowout situations that hardly excite a player who has appeared in four League Championship Series, two World Series, and threw the final pitch of the 1986 Fall Classic at the Boston Red Sox.

"I've probably been in 17 or 18 games," Orosco said before last night's series opener against the Anaheim Angels. "The hardest thing has been in 13 or 14 of them we've been losing. Once we get on a roll, everything starts working out.

"We won those five games in a row and I pitched in a couple and pitched really well. But I was throwing terrible before that. I really think I've gotten things worked out now."

Orosco is the ultimate specialist -- a left-hander summoned to retire left-handed hitters, then leave the stage for a right-handed setup man or closer Mike Timlin. Orosco's success in the role has allowed him to stalk Dennis Eckersley's record for career appearances and Kent Tekulve's mark for career relief appearances. Orosco, 42, should bump Tekulve next month and Eckersley in early August barring disruption of his four-year average of 68 appearances with the Orioles.

Orosco only hopes he has returned to form when history greets him.

"I hate that it happens. But it's the way things are going right now. Nothing is going right for the team. Everybody's having problems," he said.

Following last Saturday's collapse against Texas, Miller subtly criticized the ancient left-hander, implying a lack of focus. Orosco surrendered a single to left-handed hitter Rafael Palmeiro and walked Ivan Rodriguez. Palmeiro eventually scored the first of the Rangers' five runs in the last two innings. The Rangers won 8-7 and Miller hardly contained his frustration over the bullpen.

"I don't know whether Jesse thinks I'm bringing him to pitch a whole inning or what," he said. "But basically I'm bringing him in for a couple hitters."

Referring to the two base runners Orosco allowed Saturday, Miller said, "When he doesn't get the two outs, you say, `We'll do it tomorrow.' And if he doesn't get those two you say, `We'll do it tomorrow.' Pretty soon, three days go by and that's six guys you don't get out. That's not too good. You don't quit on Jesse. You keep putting him in that spot. He's got a pretty remarkable track record. Usually in April he has some problems. But now we're toward the end of May. He's going to have to get better."

Orosco still throws with the same velocity as a decade ago, but he relies heavily on a curveball against left-handed hitters. Typically, the pitch waits until warm weather to find its full movement. Not until recently did Orosco experience positive returns.

"It's just one of those things where you hit a slump and have to work your way out. I haven't been really concerned. If my arm hurt, then I'd be concerned. But my arm feels great. I feel like I still have a lot of life in me," he said.

Like everyone else in the bullpen, Orosco looks forward to the day when the starters consistently pitch into the seventh inning, the offense generates leads and Miller's late-inning tactics become more predictable.

Miller warmed Ricky Bones five times last Saturday while Arthur Rhodes sat idle as a byproduct of warming four times the previous two days. Miller considers Rhodes an "enigma" because he requires a long time to warm. Conversely, Orosco can be used daily if limited to one or two hitters.

"I just haven't hit that consistent spot yet where I pitch well for 10 or 12 games in a row. Hopefully I'll get my ERA down, but I'm not concerned about where it is now," said Orosco, who went into last night with a 9.00 ERA. "All the runs have usually come in situations where it's been a blowout. It can be really hard to concentrate in those kind of games sometimes. I still should do my job, but sometimes it's kind of hard."

By season's end he will rank as the second-oldest Oriole ever, trailing only Rick Dempsey (43). Should the club allow him to fulfill his contract, which is guaranteed through next season, Orosco will join an elite group that has performed in four decades.

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