Hentgen well-armed against bad day

March 14, 2001|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Pat Hentgen didn't have a good day at the office yesterday. The Orioles' new starting pitcher struggled through four innings in his second Grapefruit League outing, allowing five hits, four runs and three home runs in a 10-3 loss to the Marlins.

"The wind was blowing out, and he didn't really pitch that badly overall," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "But you need to keep the ball down, and that's one thing he didn't do."

If it had been any of the other pitchers penciled into the starting rotation or competing for a spot, the poor outing would have set off alarms. The Orioles' rotation is good for more questions than answers these days. Can Jose Mercedes come close to winning 14 games again? Is Sidney Ponson ready to take a step forward? Who are the fourth and fifth starters? Will Mike Mussina win more games for the Yankees than all those other pitchers combined?

Ouch.

But Hentgen, who signed a two-year, $9.6 million contract last winter, is a small island of answers amid that sea of questions.

With a 120-88 career record, 15 wins last season and the 1996 American League Cy Young Award on his resume, he is the one starter in camp who won't set off alarms with a bad outing.

"I've been doing this a long time," he said with a smile after yesterday's game. "I don't really worry about results this time of year. Don't get me wrong. I know this game is all about results, and I didn't have them today. But I'm just trying to get my arm ready for the season, and I'm getting there."

In other words, the right sign to hang in his locker would have read as follows: Professional at work. Don't worry.

You could tell in the way Hentgen, 32, stopped for post-game clubhouse visits with Brady Anderson, catcher Greg Myers and spring pitching adviser Mike Flanagan, spending a half-hour dissecting what happened. He retired his first five batters before yielding back-to-back homers to Derrek Lee and former Orioles farmhand B.J. Waszgis, then gave up another homer to Cliff Floyd with two out in the third.

"I know what I did wrong, especially on the changeup to Floyd, which didn't fool him in the least," Hentgen said. "And the thing that really burns me is giving all that up with two outs. I shouldn't do that."

But he's a veteran who knows what he's doing, and though it's a reach to make him a No. 1 starter at this point in his career as the Orioles are doing - he was the No. 4 guy on a division-winning staff in St. Louis last season - he's a good bet to be ready on time, make 30-plus starts and keep games close, as he has done wherever he has pitched since 1992.

If only the rest of the rotation could be counted on to do the same.

"It's not a role I've played in the past, the veteran guy with the track record," he said. "But I do feel that way in this situation. I'm just going to go about my business and do what I need to do to take the ball every fifth day. That's leading by example, which I hope to do."

He also is leading in other ways, a positive sign for Hargrove.

"I'm not saying he's an elder statesman or anything," Hargrove said, "but he is spending a lot of time with all the younger guys we have in camp."

Said Hentgen, shrugging: "Why wouldn't I do that if they come to me with a question? It only makes the team better."

Hentgen had a 4.72 ERA and some of the best run support in the National League last season, suggesting he didn't pitch quite as effectively as his 15-12 record indicated. Then St. Louis manager Tony La Russa dissed him in the postseason, using other starters ahead of him, including rookie wild man Rick Ankiel.

Hentgen sat for 16 days before starting and losing the Cardinals' last game of the season, to the Mets in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series.

"Sure, I was upset," he said. "I wanted to pitch. I always want to pitch."

But don't expect him to use that sour ending to 2000 as motivation this season.

"You start over every year," he said. "You never stop having to prove yourself."

But like the veteran he is, he has responded to his struggles proactively, undertaking the first major overhaul of his repertoire since breaking in with the Blue Jays a decade ago.

"From '91 to '96, I was basically a two-pitch pitcher, all fastballs and curveballs," he said. "But as your career goes on and you log innings and hitters start to recognize what you do, you have to adjust. I throw more cut fastballs now, and I throw a lot more changeups than I ever did. I started throwing [the changeup] in the second half of last season, and I'm throwing it this spring, too. It's a pitch that can get you out of jams and save wear on your arm.

"As you get older, you start to look at the game differently. Anyone can pitch and have success for a year or two, but the guys who do it for 10 or 15 or 18 years, that's impressive, because with advance scouting and better video and satellites and what have you, so many more people are analyzing what you do and preparing for what you throw. You have to be better prepared yourself, stay in shape and be mentally tough."

In at least one place in their 2001 rotation, the Orioles don't have to worry. Even after a bad day at the office.

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