Mills' turn for better

A twisted ankle helped seal reliever's happy O's reunion

June 20, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, CALIF. — Late Orioles game: Last night's game between the Orioles and the Athletics in Oakland, Calif., ended too late to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http://www.sunspot.net.

OAKLAND, Calif. - If every journey begins with a single step, then the one that brought Alan Mills back to the Orioles occurred in the Olympic Stadium outfield on Opening Day in Montreal.

With the season still hours away, Mills was running during batting practice when he stepped on a ball, dropping him to the ground with a sprained ankle. The incident not only represented a cruel flashback to another injury that had occurred in the Camden Yards outfield three years ago, it all but assured that Mills' time with the Los Angeles Dodgers was running out.

Familiar with his manager, Davey Johnson, and general manager, Kevin Malone, from his time in Baltimore, Mills was unfamiliar with his role. Probably because he couldn't distinguish it.

"Things got off on the wrong foot when I got hurt and they never seemed to come back around," he said. "There were times I'd go what seemed like forever without pitching. It was strange."

Mills craves work. His best years with the Orioles had him make about 70 appearances, usually setting up the eighth-inning tandem of Armando Benitez and Arthur Rhodes, sometimes working the eighth inning himself and even closing on rare occasions.

Free agency took him to the Dodgers after the 1998 season. His former team's desperate need for a hard-throwing middle reliever carried him back. Manager Mike Hargrove intends to use him mostly in the eighth inning time-share with Mike Trombley. His presence allows Hargrove to further condense roles, a significant benefit within a staff where several relievers have been extended beyond their traditional job descriptions.

When the call arrived last week that he had been dealt to the Orioles for reliever Al Reyes, Mills was pleasantly surprised.

"There was a lot of talk in spring training about me being traded. I was expecting something to happen," said Mills, well aware that the Dodgers were looking to alleviate a glut of right-handers. "Then the talk died down for a while. I wasn't pitching much. I didn't know what was going on. When I had stopped expecting something to happen, it did."

Mills has been careful not to criticize the Dodgers. But he also has made it obvious he is happier back in Baltimore, where he is comfortable with the city, its fans and many of the teammates he left behind. His wife is also from the area.

To a man, the Orioles remember Mills as "a great clubhouse guy" blessed with a crack-up sense of humor but also a talent driven by intensity. His 95-mph fastball and willingness to pitch inside with it makes him the perfect complement within a bullpen loaded with breaking-ball specialists.

"One guy," said vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, "can make a huge difference."

The Orioles have so far liked what they've seen. Mills contributed a shutout inning in back-to-back games last Thursday and Friday, showing little rust.

Just as he was with the Orioles before, Mills, 33, remains superstitious.

"I still don't talk about my pitching. I just don't," he said, concerned that overanalyzing his mechanics can only complicate his performance. "I've always been that way."

Mills was pitching well when the 1997 season opened. The Orioles' bullpen was considered the best in the American League and Johnson was aggressive enough to mix and match relievers. Rhodes, Mills, Benitez and Terry Mathews were workhorses and Randy Myers ranked among the game's most productive closers.

However, Mills' season was short-circuited in batting practice during the Orioles' second homestand when he collided with backup catcher Lenny Webster while chasing a ball in the outfield. Mills' shoulder collided with Webster's thigh, sending the pitcher to the ground and leaving his right side numb for several minutes. The injury limited him to 39 appearances.

The 1998 season saw Mills work 72 games and compile a 3.74 ERA in 77 innings. The production made him attractive to the Dodgers, who lured him with a three-year, $6.5 million contract.

Mills left the team during a period of uncertainty and returns in much the same situation. As the Orioles ponder which direction to take from here, Mills is one of five relievers signed through next season. However, he represents the only link to the bullpen's glory days of '97.

"This is a great baseball city and there are a lot of great guys in here," he said in the clubhouse. "I'm glad it could work out this way."

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