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

MINNEAPOLIS -- Celebrated as the starting point in the major-league career of organizational gem Matt Riley, last night's appearance against the Minnesota Twins ended as a 6-5 win. After 2 2/3 innings, the Orioles celebrated its completion as a necessary part of a growing process.

Riley, a gem whose rough edges showed during a nervous, sometimes tedious start, secured eight outs and averted disaster. For a pitcher signed less than 16 months ago and the youngest to start a game for the Orioles since Mike Adamson in 1967, turbulence was expected.

Last night 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.

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 him but could not severely bruise him. The Orioles supported him with two quick scores, an assist from his catcher and a well-timed hook from manager Ray Miller.

There were both encouraging flashes and 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.

One day Riley will likely reflect on the outing as a keepsake but last night he trudged from the mound only steps ahead of Miller, clearly disappointed in a line that included four hits, four walks and two earned runs.

Riley's debut occurred against the backdrop of a three-game sweep that lifted the Orioles to 64-76 as they return to Camden Yards for a seven-game homestand. Riley's next start will likely come during a three-game series against wild-card contender Oakland.

Riley resembled what he is: a 20-year-old 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. Riley faced 15 hitters and fed them 69 pitches, including only 31 strikes. Orioles executives' most difficult task was to separate what was a product of his nerves and what may have been the aftereffects of 178 1/3 innings split between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie.

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 for the ball 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 third baseman Brent Gates looped another fly ball that put Kingsale in a dive. This time the catch was made for a sacrifice fly.

Regarded as a natural talent able to reach this stage after only 42 minor-league starts, Riley's 189 strikeouts were offset by only 56 walks while he compiled an ERA of 2.61 or lower in each of the season's first three months.

However, the Orioles expected this appearance to be unlike any other. They immediately witnessed the predictable as Riley struggled for command and composure. During an 18-pitch first inning that included only seven strikes, a balk and an unsettling stolen base, Riley was visited three times by catcher Charles Johnson and once by pitching coach Bruce Kison. He survived the inning with only one run by getting Terry Steinbach to ground to Cal Ripken with a runner at third.

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

This was not an easy decision for general manager Frank Wren and his lieutenants. Riley admitted upon his arrival to Camden Yards last Sunday that his unprecedented innings load had sapped some of his velocity. His changeup has only recently matured and last night appeared to evaporate as the Twins narrowed him to an 88- to 91-mph fastball and a loose curve.

The Orioles' offense, which had outscored the Twins 15-0 the previous two nights, was thoughful enough to provide Riley with a lead twice. Second baseman Jerry Hairston ripped his third home run with one out in the first inning for a 1-0 lead. Ripken began the second inning with a single -- career hit No. 2,974 -- advanced to second on a two-out walk to shortstop Jesse Garcia and scored when Kingsale slashed a base hit to center field.

Riley's second lead lasted only two hitters. Chad Allen began the Twins' second with a double into the right-center field gap, took third on a ground ball and scored on Torii Hunter's single.

Like the first inning, the second included a mound visit from Kison and a stolen base, which only further distracted Riley. At one point his repeated pickoff attempts drew the ire of a select but vocal Metrodome crowd announced at 9,903.

Miller promised a day earlier that Riley would not pitch beyond five innings. However, the manager rightly condensed his timetable when the third inning began as the previous two.

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