'Pen needs rewrite on storybook endings

April 13, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- So much for that 5-1 start.

Two road games, two walk-off defeats, two wild celebrations at home plate by the fuzzy-cheeked, small-market Kansas City Royals.

It was bad enough when the Orioles blew a 5-2 lead with four outs to go Tuesday night.

It was worse when they blew a 6-0 lead in the final three innings last night, culminating with Rey Sanchez's three-run homer off interim closer Mike Trombley.

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Sanchez began the season with 11 career homers in 2,768 at-bats but somehow muscled up to deliver the Royals' third walk-off shot in three days.

So, is this the first sign of another bullpen meltdown?

Or, are the Orioles simply falling victim to a hot team?

Probably a little of both, but the fact of the matter is, the Orioles should be 7-1.

Their defense, once the most reliable in the American League, isn't making necessary plays at critical times. And their revamped bullpen, without closer Mike Timlin, looks predictably out of sync.

"It's just one of those things right now," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I think our bullpen is a good bullpen. When they're on top of their game, they'll be as good as any. But they're not going to dominate all the time."

Once Timlin returns, perhaps late next week, Al Reyes won't be pitching with a 5-2 lead in the eighth, as he did Tuesday night when he gave up a three-run homer to Joe Randa.

Once Timlin returns, Trombley won't need to perform an eighth-inning escape and then return for the ninth, as he did last night. He'll be a one-inning setup man, with B. J. Ryan also working the eighth in certain situations.

Just one of those things?

Well, Hargrove went to Trombley last night in the spot that he didn't the night before, and still lost in the same fashion.

Just one of those things?

Third baseman Cal Ripken committed an error that led to a Kansas City run Tuesday night, and right fielder Albert Belle failed to catch a pop-up by Gregg Zaun last night, loading the bases in the Royals' four-run seventh.

As Hargrove said, "We're our own worst enemy."

The defense is a concern that isn't going away -- shortstop Mike Bordick bobbled a potential double-play grounder that proved inconsequential -- but the bullpen was just as culpable last night, delivering two walks at critical times.

The first was a bases-loaded pass by left-hander Buddy Groom to pinch hitter Mark Quinn after Zaun's bloop hit in the seventh. The second was a leadoff walk by Trombley to Zaun in the ninth.

You remember Zaun, the pesky nephew of Rick Dempsey and former Orioles catcher who batted .188 after getting a chance to play full time for the hapless Florida Marlins in 1998.

He wanted no part of Trombley, refusing to even budge at a nasty 1-2 split-fingered fastball. Trombley knew then that Zaun was looking for a walk. But somehow, the Little Demper worked the count in his favor and found his way to first base.

The next hitter was Quinn, your standard, no-name Kansas City rookie. Hargrove instructed his outfielders to play deep, trying to protect against a double over their heads. But Quinn hit the ball so hard, it went over center fielder Brady Anderson's head anyway.

"If he was playing any deeper, he would have had green paint on his back," Hargrove said. "A rocket like that is tough to defend."

None out, runners on second and third.

Sanchez, the No. 9 hitter, was next.

Sanchez, against a pitcher who compiled 7 1/3 scoreless innings and earned three saves against Kansas City while pitching for Minnesota last season.

Trombley fell behind 3-1. Sanchez expected the take sign. Royals manager Tony Muser almost ordered him to take. Instead, Sanchez hit a fastball that barely cleared the left-field fence, and the Royals' dugout erupted for the third straight day.

Just one of those things?

Well, the Orioles did take a 6-0 lead last night. But the Royals have outscored their opponents 37-14 after the seventh inning. And their 7-3 record is their best 10-game mark since 1978.

"I believe our bullpen is better," said Timlin, the only holdover from last season's group that blew 25 saves. "But the Royals have been swinging the bat pretty good in the late innings. They don't take as many chances as they do early in the game."

Perhaps a team that opened the season without its closer, No. 2 starter and backup catcher shouldn't expect to be anything more than 5-3. But the Orioles operate with little margin for error and can't afford to blow games they should win.

They've withstood the injury to Scott Erickson, with their starters working six or more innings in all but two games. But their bullpen will remain a question even after Timlin returns -- Timlin has never closed successfully for a contending team.

Just one of those things?

It's too early to tell.

But 7-1 would look a lot better than 5-3.

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