Ellis' pitch a big hit with O's starters

Mussina and Erickson are asked for input in planning spring routine

February 21, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Position players don't report until tomorrow, but the most important conversation of Orioles camp may have already occurred.

New pitching coach Sammy Ellis approached veterans Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson on Saturday and asked for their input in formulating his starting pitchers' Grapefruit League schedule. Mussina and Erickson, who represent the staff's compass, gladly accepted the offer.

"Spring training isn't about getting me ready," said Ellis, former New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners pitching coach and until last December the Cincinnati Reds' pitching coordinator. "It's about getting them ready. Why shouldn't they be involved?"

Manager Mike Hargrove further clarified the next six weeks by saying he intends to begin the season with a four-man rotation and an 11-man staff. The rotation of Mussina, Erickson, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson will unfailingly appear, barring weather complications.

"We've talked about how they want to get ready," Ellis said. "They know their arms better than I do. They know what it takes for them to get prepared. Hey, we're here to help them. We're not here to argue with them. We want to work for them."

Hargrove's arrival is being embraced by his hard-edged rotation as a break from consecutive seasons in which Ray Miller's reputation as an elite pitching coach failed to translate as a manager. Complicated by last spring's ill-timed March exhibition in Cuba and a monthlong search for a fifth starter, Miller mistakenly believed his veterans and the impressionable Ponson could overcome abbreviated innings in spring training.

Juan Guzman's turn fell on the Cuba exhibition, but his status as a conscientious objector forced the rotation to be juggled. Starters sometimes appeared on five or more days' rest, and the liberal use of pinch hitters further confused the issue.

"It was like they were trying to win games that didn't count instead of getting the pitchers ready," said Ponson, who allowed 22 runners in 13 innings covering his first three regular-season starts.

The Ellis summit, coupled with Hargrove's preferences, produced the following: starters will be extended against live hitting rather than exiting quickly to pitch simulated innings in the bullpen; younger arms may have to make an impression elsewhere; routines will conform to pitchers' needs rather than vice versa.

"The worst thing you can do is try to change things. This isn't supposed to benefit him. It's supposed to benefit us," Erickson said. "Mostly, it's common sense."

Hargrove's preference for a four-man rotation is disarmingly simple.

"The more often you can put your best players on the field, the better chance you have to win. That's the basic premise," he said. "Your [No.] 1 and 2 guys are better than the 3, 4 and 5 guys. You want to get them on the mound as much as possible. You keep your fifth starter ready by sending him out to extended spring or some other way."

Hargrove also made official yesterday what everyone had assumed when he announced Mussina as his Opening Day starter. Hargrove waffled on Saturday whether Erickson or Ponson would work the season's second game April 5, but Ellis' spring rotation suggests Erickson.

Last spring, only Guzman pitched as many as 28 innings. Mussina pitched only 22 1/3 innings; Ponson managed only 20, in part due to a disastrous outing in the team's exhibition finale in Birmingham, Ala. The innings monster Erickson pitched 26 1/3 innings, including seven against Cuba, but still felt shortchanged.

"The problem was that I felt fine but my mechanics were screwed up. When I threw in the bullpen at 50 percent, everything was fine. When I got in a game and pushed it, everything came up. I had no idea," Erickson said.

The annual onset of "dead arm" didn't hit Ponson until the last week of camp.

Other factors are more subtle. Because their minor leagues train elsewhere, the Orioles remain unable to manufacture innings for their starters in "B" games.

But with one meeting, Ellis cut through any doubt, suspicion or fog that typified last year's camp. Mussina and Erickson made some blunt suggestions. Ellis listened and acted.

Calling 30 innings his "barometer," Ellis expects each of his first four starters to work 28 to 32 innings this spring "somewhere, somehow."

"That's the way it should be," Erickson said. "We know ourselves better than anyone else. We know what works for us and what doesn't work for us. Last year didn't work."

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