Escape from L.A. is relief for Mills

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

`It took me by surprise ... but I'm happy,' pitcher says of return to Baltimore

June 16, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The location of his locker has changed, but not the uniform number. Orioles reliever Alan Mills, back in the organization yesterday after leaving as a free agent after the 1998 season, still carries No. 75 on his back.

"Nobody else wanted it," he said.

There's no place Mills wanted to be more than Baltimore, where he pitched for seven seasons before accepting a three-year, $6.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He touched down early yesterday morning after taking a red-eye from the West Coast and pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning last night.

"It feels a little different," he said before the game, looking around the clubhouse, "but it's good to be back. I didn't expect this to happen. I expected it earlier and during spring training, so it kind of took me by surprise. But I'm happy."

Mills was careful not to sound critical of Los Angeles, where he was 2-1 with a 4.21 ERA and one save in 18 games this season. But it's clear his preference is to remain on the other side of the map.

Asked about rumors that he was unhappy in California, Mills said, "I just know I was happier when I was here. Like I said before I left, my wife's from here and I've always enjoyed playing here. I never wanted to leave. It's just good to be back."

Mills said he never imagined a scenario where he'd return to the Orioles, who acquired him on Tuesday for reliever Al Reyes.

"When I left, I didn't think I'd ever come back here," said Mills, who struggled with his command early in the season. "I hope a change of scenery does me good."

Mills' biggest adjustment will be getting reacquainted with a baseball. Before last night, he had gone a week without being used, mostly because of a glut of right-handers in a Dodgers bullpen that includes only one left-hander.

"The pace I was on, it would have put me under 50 games for the season," Mills said. "That's a lot less than I was used to. For some odd reason, I wasn't pitching at all. It's kind of hard for me to get in any kind of groove, good or bad, when I'm not pitching."

He can expect more work from manager Mike Hargrove, who envisions Mills assisting in a set-up role.

"I also told him I want him to be agile enough mentally that he could adapt to maybe coming in earlier than that, but I don't want to have to run Alan out there two or three innings at a time," Hargrove said.

McElroy at the ready

Reliever Chuck McElroy was available last night despite throwing two innings on Wednesday and not being able to come out for a third because of soreness behind his upper left arm.

He entered last night's game after the 2-hour, 7-minute rain delay and pitched two scoreless innings.

On Wednesday night, McElroy retired all six batters he faced to carry the game into the seventh, when Jose Mercedes took over and served up a home run to the first batter, catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

This is the first time McElroy has experienced this type of discomfort, though he said it's nothing serious. Most likely, it developed because he's been throwing more frequently. McElroy appeared in only one game from May 14 to June 2, and likened his return to more regular duty to the early period of spring training.

"I'm throwing a whole lot more now," he said. "A lot of pitchers get it. It's nothing major."

McElroy said he'll cut down the amount of throwing he does in the bullpen. "It usually only takes me one pitch to get ready anyway," he said.

The veteran left-hander has given up one unearned run in his past five outings covering five innings, and one earned run in 10 innings spanning eight games. Before that, McElroy had permitted 12 earned runs in 6 1/3 innings.

"My concentration is a whole lot better than it was," he said.

Conine settles in

Remember when each time Jeff Conine was given a start at third base, or even a few innings, it seemed worth mentioning? Whether it was spring training or the regular season, his presence at the hot corner was a hot topic.

Conine's glad the interest has cooled.

He takes the relative silence that greets his starts there as an indication that the novelty has ended. It's just another position that Conine can fill to keep his bat in the lineup and provide occasional rest for Cal Ripken, which was Hargrove's intention when he began the experiment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"I feel comfortable everywhere I'm playing now, even at third base," said Conine, who has made six starts there, the most recent Wednesday while Ripken served as designated hitter. "I haven't gotten much time over there, but I've taken enough ground balls and been there enough that I feel like I'm competent."

Molina reappears

Hargrove still regards Gabe Molina as one of the Orioles' best prospects, though the reliever had become invisible upon being called up from Triple-A Rochester.

Before pitching one scoreless but shaky inning last night - he gave up a double and walked two but got out of the bases-loaded jam - Molina had pitched one inning during his three stints with the club this season. That appearance dated to April 7, when he allowed a three-run homer in the ninth inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers.

Molina's inactivity "hasn't been by design," Hargrove said. "I'm looking for spots to put him in. We need to get him in a game here. He has a very bright future."

Calvin Maduro will return from his injury rehab assignment at Rochester today, but Hargrove said he's not certain when the right-hander will be activated from the disabled list. When it happens, Molina is expected to make a trip back to Rochester.

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