Riley's debut is quick pitch

Balking, wild rookie goes only 2 2/3, but O's sweep Twins, 6-5

September 10, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

What a rush.

His arrival happened so quickly that Matt Riley literally couldn't catch his breath last night. Two years out of high school and only 44 minor-league starts after being drafted in 1997, Riley gave the Orioles a peek at 2 2/3 eventful innings in his major-league debut against the Minnesota Twins.

No one was asked to pass judgment on what became a 6-5 Orioles victory, most of all Riley. However, in the dying days of a lost season, glimpses at the future are especially important.

The Orioles' most prized prospect allowed two earned runs and eight base runners to complete a whirlwind tour that began in Single-A Frederick in April and has now carried him for more than 180 innings.

"I take every outing seriously. I'm not going to get down about it," Riley said. "But if I take it easy I wouldn't be the competitor I am. That's what makes me strive to be where I am. I've got to take pitching bad hard. That's what makes me better."

On a night when Albert Belle became only the fourth player in major-league history to compile eight consecutive seasons of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, and on a night when Cal Ripken got his 2,974th hit but established a dubious league record for double plays, it was the 20-year-old Californian who transfixed the organization.

Making the most anticipated debut of any Orioles pitcher since Mike Mussina in July 1991, the precocious Riley on this night resembled what he is: a gifted Billy Idol look-alike whose trust in a three-pitch assortment had never been tested by Triple-A bats, much less by anyone in the American League.

Promoted from Double-A Bowie on Sunday, the left-handed Riley balked twice, was bothered by two stolen bases and fidgeted against a team that constantly threatened but did not severely bruise him. He could not pick up signs from catcher Charles

Johnson in the first inning, causing Johnson to tape his fingers prior to the second.

The Orioles supported Riley with two quick scores, an assist from his catcher and a well-timed hook from manager Ray Miller. There were encouraging flashes and some obvious hand-holding by Miller and pitching coach Bruce Kison, who wore a path to the mound with visits in each of the prodigy's three innings.

"I'm sure there was some nervousness, anxiety, et cetera," Kison said. "His life experiences are against young hitters. These are major-league hitters. He was behind a lot and he didn't establish enough pitches for strikes to keep hitters interested in being aggressive. I'm sure jitters contribute to that. You expect that."

Riley, who followed second baseman Jerry Hairston as the second player from the Orioles' 1997 draft to reach the major leagues, pitched from the windup against only five hitters, four of whom reached. He groped for rhythm and feel as his defense played unevenly behind him.

Against a team that had scored in only two of its previous 33 innings against the Orioles, Riley threw too many pitches the same way he likes to wear his socks -- high and exposed.

"I think he was trying to do more than he should have," Mussina said. "I think he was trying to show everything that he's accomplished in two years in one day. That's impossible. But that's tough to get across. You're trying to establish yourself at a new level."

Riley's first major-league pitch, a fastball to Twins second baseman Denny Hocking, was driven to left-center field where rookie center fielder Eugene Kingsale extended only to have it glance off his forearm for a triple. On Riley's sixth pitch, he suffered his first earned run while also securing his first out as Brent Gates looped another fly ball that sent Kingsale in a dive. The catch was made for a sacrifice fly.

Riley faced just 15 hitters and fed them 69 pitches, including only 31 strikes. The most difficult task now facing Orioles executives is to separate what was a product of nerves and what may have been the result of 178 1/3 innings between Frederick and Bowie.

"I've kind of been struggling the last three outings to find a rhythm. I'm having trouble finding my delivery. As a result, my ball tends to stay up," Riley said.

To be expected, Riley overthrew his fastball and curve and was too excited to trust his third pitch, a maturing changeup that prompted Wren and his lieutenants to scrap their initial plan of having Riley pitch in the Arizona Fall League in October instead of the American League in September. Miller, Kison and Wren will likely meet in the next few days to determine whether Riley should receive a tentatively scheduled start next week at home against the Oakland Athletics. The combination of last night's rough ride and the A's involvement in a wild-card chase might prompt a reshuffling.

"For some reason I got locked out of [the changeup] and I didn't call on it much. I've got a good changeup and I've got to use it," Riley said. "I only used it two or three times and that could have been a good pitch for me because I was having trouble getting my breaking ball over early."

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