What an ex-pitcher sees

Expertise: Watching a game with a guy who got to Triple-A and once played with Belle.

June 28, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Andrew Rush, 29, knows pitching.

Drafted out of Somerset High School near Pittsburgh, Pa., by the Boston Red Sox, he pitched Triple-A ball in Pawtucket, R.I, and in Lynchburg, Va.; curves, change-ups, a fastball clocked at 88 to 93 miles per hour.

So, who better to have in Section 96, Row N, Seat 14? The Seat. He was there Saturday, a boiling hot day in the bleachers, bellowing Yankee fans on the left, hardy Orioles fans to the right. Rush and his wife, Jennifer, 25, drove down Friday from Oakmont, Pa.

"We love coming to this park. It's great," he says. "The atmosphere, a beautiful stadium, the Inner Harbor. It's a nice, short vacation."

Now, what about pitching?

"I just started playing like any other kid and got pretty successful. Unfortunately, I had two elbow surgeries and that was the end of it," he says.

But those were good times.

"Just the excitement of trying to reach this level. You always had this in your mind," says Rush, a solidly built man who still lifts weights. "It was just fun playing ball for a living."

In 1989, Rush played in the Florida Instructional League with a Louisiana State outfielder named Joey Belle. A good hitter, Belle. Nowadays he's Albert Belle. Todd Erdos, a pitcher on the Yankee roster, was Rush's roommate during spring training one year with the San Diego Padres.

Keeping track

Rush never got "the call." Still, he's a good guy to be sitting next to for a game that starts as a pitching duel, a shutout on both sides the first four innings. With Rush around, it's worth keeping track of the pitches and speeds flashed on the board above the right field line. Those numbers are more than just facts for a score card. They tell you what a pitcher is thinking.

"It's constant concentration. I mean, the hitters are so good. You always have to be aware of what they're looking for," says Rush. "It's not just getting up there and throwing."

If it were that simple, the majors would be full of guys lucky enough to have a strong arm and a good aim. Of course, it is not that simple. "The higher up you get, the less mistakes you can make as a pitcher," says Rush.

In Double-A, maybe you can get away with 10 in a game; Triple-A, perhaps 5; the majors, one or two. There's no room for hacks. To play at this level, you have to learn the game. You have to dig into its nuances, know the strengths and weaknesses of batters hungry for the same thing you want: a shot at the big leagues. You have to have all that, and a body that won't give out.

And once you make the majors, you have to keep learning. Predictability can shatter a career. Yankee ace David Cone, who's on the mound today, used to be a fastball pitcher. Now, he has a collection of off-speed pitches.

"Cone's pitching from all different angles. Fastball, change-up, sliders -- he's got everything," says Rush.

Jason Johnson, making his sixth major league start, holds his own against Cone. During one stretch he retires 10 straight. The kid has some promise, but his ERA is way up there, says a fan from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who, having heard a bit of Rush's story, wants to share his own insights. Johnson's ERA is 7.26. Not good. Rush nods and studies.

"Nice curve," he says. "He needs one of these gems to get his ERA down. Wow! That was 93. He's a big kid, too."

Bottom of the fourth, Cone vs. Will Clark. Cone starts with a 67 mph curveball; then an 81 mph split-finger fastball, another split-finger fastball, this one clocked at 80 mph; an 82 mph slider; another curveball, a tad faster this time, 78 mph. Clark strikes out.

"Obviously, he thinks Will Clark struggles with the off-speed stuff," says Rush. "That's probably the book on Will Clark."

There's a book on every hitter, what he likes and doesn't like; what he'll swing on, even if it's in the dirt; what he's likely to send on that glorious parabolic ride into the stands. Clark returns in the bottom of the seventh. Time to see if Cone takes the same approach.

Watching Will Clark

"Will Clark is thinking, `He's going to throw me this again, and at the same time Cone is probably saying, `I'll sneak in a fastball,' " says Rush. "It's a guessing game."

Clark gets an 80 mph split-finger fastball and a couple of 83 mph sliders before grounding out.

"Still thinks he can't hit that stuff," says Rush.

"Give him the off-speed stuff," says a nearby fan.

"Yeah," says Rush, his mind back on the game.

He started playing baseball when he was 9 years old. A year later, coaches said he could be a pitcher. When he was 15, talent scouts started showing up. He was 39-5 in high school with a 0.60 ERA. Impressive. Rush shrugs it off. He's modest. The numbers speak for themselves.

He was a Mets fan growing up. And why not. Darryl Strawberry won rookie of the year in 1983 and led the National League in homers in 1988. Dwight Gooden was rookie of the year in 1984, the Cy Young winner in 1985 with a 1.53 ERA. Folks called him "Dr. K." Back then Gooden struck out everybody.

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