Season for relief

Orioles: Closer Mike Timlin gets a better grip on his role with six straight converted saves and a boost of confidence.

August 13, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Mike Timlin remembers the frustration and the sense of helplessness compounded by his inconsistent usage and uneven performance. He remembers unprintable words that greeted him from every angle in every ballpark, especially within Camden Yards. He can remember because the words are still there, even if Timlin says he isn't listening.

His contract a source of organizational controversy before he even threw a pitch, Timlin has righted himself within his team's listing season. The poster boy for a chaotic bullpen during the season's first half, he enters this weekend's three-game series against the Cleveland Indians with more confidence, a string of six straight converted saves and less sensitive hearing.

The Orioles' four-year, $16 million closer, Timlin spent this season's first half identifying with the $65 million right fielder, Albert Belle. Success hasn't changed that.

"There are still times when I come in from the bullpen that I hear them boo. And that's fine. They have their opinion," Timlin says. "I'm a lot like Albert. Albert goes out there every day and gets booed. I think he welcomes the boos more than the cheers because everybody has been booing him for so long. They're either on one side of the fence or the other, and the fence is usually low enough so that they can jump to the other side."

At times Timlin says he has even recognized the voices, such as the time someone phoned to remind him that his eight blown saves led the major leagues.

"My mom called me the other day and reminded me," Timlin said more than a little ruefully. "I told her that's not something I really want to find out.

Before altering course, Timlin wasn't run out of town. He was, however, temporarily run out of his role.

Manager Ray Miller became so exasperated in June that he tried rookie Gabe Molina as closer and threatened to appoint organizational problem child Rocky Coppinger.

Timlin never publicly vented though he obliquely criticized the move several times. Arthur Rhodes fumbled the role and -- frustrated with Miller's penchant for warming him two, three, even four times in the same game -- demanded to return to middle relief. Molina was optioned back to Rochester following one abortive attempt. Coppinger never got a taste and was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers.

"When they took me out, deep down I knew that I'd be back," Timlin say. "I know I can close."

Getting his focus

Armed with a recently adopted ritual that begins in the fifth inning of every game, Timlin immerses himself in a form of visualization.

He will stare intently at a small object while projecting the ninth inning -- whom he will face, how he will pitch to each hitter and ultimately seeing his success. When the bullpen phone rings for him to warm, Timlin prepares his arm and then further readies his mind. Standing on the bullpen mound, he closes his eyes while the Orioles bat. When Timlin reaches the pitching mound, he hones his focus to a portion of the catcher's mitt. The batter, the umpire and the voices from the stands are incidental.

"It's a matter of getting your focus and taking your brain from the general to something specific, whether it's a rock, the tip of a blade of grass or the seam on a baseball. That's what you do when you're pitching," he says.

Timlin has not allowed an earned run since July 6. After going more than a month without a save, he has five since July 23. No longer do his appearances instill a sense of dread. He has lowered his ERA to 4.20, third-lowest on the staff and lowest within the Orioles bullpen.

Except to say it was no one within baseball, Timlin won't disclose who assisted him with his routine. But gone are the days when he heard every bleacherite's critique. More importantly, he says the words of self-doubt have also evaporated.

A new outlook

"It was getting so broad that I was hearing people in the stands," he says. "I would remember times I would go out there with a three-run lead knowing the game was over but thinking of what happened the last time I was out there. `I blew the last one. I've got to get this one done.' That's not a positive statement no matter how you look at it."

"He's removed a lot of things," says bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks. "He's narrowed his focus a great deal. Before, I think he thought about what could possibly go wrong this time. When you think like that, you usually find out in a hurry."

Timlin touched bottom May 22 at home against the Texas Rangers. Needing a ground ball to preserve a 6-4 lead with runners at first and second, he fielded a comebacker, inexplicably turned to third base and flung the ball past Cal Ripken to ignite a four-run rally that ended in an 8-7 loss. Miller said afterward he had never seen anything like it.

Timlin was bruised emotionally and continued to struggle into June. On June 19 in Chicago, he appeared during the seventh inning.

Rumors surfaced within the industry that he was pitching hurt. Tracing the innuendo to the warehouse, Timlin is still miffed by it.

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