Suddenly, Rapp on the No. 4 spot

Bumped up in rotation, O's newcomer will get more innings, scrutiny

March 03, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Pat Rapp could call yesterday a success. His two-inning appearance in a hotly contested intrasquad game was unblemished, and his session inside the clubhouse weight room brought on satisfying fatigue. A summer of heavy lifting still lies ahead.

Signed in January almost out of desperation to complete the Orioles' starting rotation, the right-hander now represents a cog in the team's scramble to compensate for the loss of Scott Erickson. Erickson is scheduled to undergo arthroscopic surgery in Los Angeles this morning to remove bone chips from his right elbow. The staff's No. 2 starter, Erickson isn't expected to return for six to eight weeks, according to club officials.

So instead of fighting for inning scraps as April's fifth starter, Rapp graduates to the No. 4 spot, which guarantees him regular work and greater scrutiny less than two months after he arrived in Baltimore as a castoff from the Boston Red Sox.

"I've done a lot of things for a lot of different teams," said Rapp, beginning the ballad of his career.

The down-home fisherman from Sulphur, La., could neatly wrap his career within a country song. He has knocked around from small-market franchise to expansion franchise and back again. One season Rapp found himself on a world championship team, but then was traded in July and released in December.

"At least I can say I got a ring out of it," Rapp said of his half season with the 1997 Florida Marlins, who beat the Cleveland Indians without him.

Rapp, who turns 33 in July, constructed a nine-game win streak in 1995 with the Marlins, only to be trampled by Roberto Kelly while covering first base.

The accident damaged two discs in his back, necessitating postseason surgery.

Traded to the San Francisco Giants in 1997, Rapp touched down after a cross-country flight, pitched for his new team and suffered a pulled rib-cage muscle, landing him on the disabled list for the only time in his nine-year major-league career.

Rapp picked up 12 wins and amassed 188 1/3 innings for the woebegone Kansas City Royals in 1998. His reward was to not be tendered a contract by the small-market franchise that December, leaving him to forage for a bottom-feeder deal with the Red Sox that provided a $1.25 million base.

Last year Rapp went 6-7 with a 4.12 ERA in 37 appearances, including 26 starts, for the American League wild-card entry. His 146 1/3 innings ranked third on the staff behind Cy Young Award-winner Pedro Martinez and Mark Portugal. However, he again became a free agent when the Red Sox declined to assume his $3 million option or offer him arbitration.

"I had 13 no-decisions, so that means 13 other times I kept my team in the game and I just didn't get a decision," Rapp said. "I guess they didn't look at it like that. They were looking for wins."

The Orioles and Anaheim Angels were the only teams to guarantee him a roster spot. The Orioles won out by offering an incentive-laden deal, including an option for the 2001 season.

The Orioles suddenly found themselves in a position to take a chance on him after their four-year, $29 million offer to free-agent pitcher Aaron Sele fell apart over a failed team physical. With free-agent pitchers Darren Oliver, Juan Guzman and Steve Trachsel snapped up as the medical drama regarding Sele played out, Rapp became a convenient option.

The Orioles are Rapp's fifth team in four seasons. He has started and pitched long relief in that span while averaging more than 158 innings a year since 1997. However, in a game increasingly featuring a caste pay system, the west Louisiana resident has been left behind.

Rapp has been dogged by charges of poor control in recent years. He walked 107 with the Royals in 1998. Last year he improved by averaging about 4.3 walks per nine innings, still a ratio most pitching coaches consider unacceptable for anyone other than a dominant power pitcher. With the Orioles' April starting rotation including 23-year-old Sidney Ponson as its de facto No. 2 and Jason Johnson as No. 3, Rapp's ability to help prevent an overheated bullpen is critical.

"I'm always working on something," he said, noting his search to reclaim a changeup that helped him so much in 1995. "Last year in Boston I tried to change so many times it got frustrating. But it finally turned around in the second half."

The changeup helped bring Rapp a 14-7 record in 1995. He is 13 games below .500 since, largely because he has been limited to a fastball and curveball while struggling with inconsistent control.

The Orioles are well aware of Rapp's reputation as a nibbler prone to using too many pitches to get too few outs. Pitching coach Sammy Ellis has impressed upon him the need for greater efficiency.

"With somebody his age, I've found it comes from one of two things," Ellis said. "Either you have problems with mechanics or you're scared of contact. I've seen his mechanics and I don't see a big problem there. For me to say anything more, I'd rather wait a bit."

"I use a lot of pitches. I never give in," Rapp said, admitting, "I try to pick corners early in the count. It seems like every year I try to work ahead in the count and every year it seems like it works for only half a season."

The Orioles are less able to wait on Rapp with Erickson likely gone until May. Without mentioning Rapp by name, Hargrove previously suggested that his fifth starter would begin the year at extended spring training or in the bullpen. Since Rapp jumped from No. 5 starter to No. 4 before throwing his first competitive pitch of camp, his contributions will have to come earlier.

"If I stay healthy -- knock on wood -- I know that I can help this team. I spent a month in the bullpen last year and still gave the Red Sox almost 150 innings. The year before I pitched 188 innings in Kansas City, even though they gave my last two starts to a kid," he said. "I've pitched in Fenway Park. I can pitch in Camden Yards."

Next month, he will receive the chance every fourth day.

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