Advice among best pitches of O's Hentgen

Former Cy Young winner quickly embraces role of staff elder, aiding mates

Dogged competitor shares insights

O's lone 20-game winner takes ball in opener today


April 02, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The setting was on a back field during one of those interminable, perfunctory morning refresher courses pitchers must endure every spring training.

A group of pitchers, some old but most young, were refining pickoff moves to third base, a skill that might help a pitcher every other season if he's lucky. Many might enter a trance while performing the rote exercise as a pitching coach's words wash over them. Except on this morning, another voice stood out.

"There's a right time and a wrong time for this," the pitcher said of the tactic.

And for several minutes, Pat Hentgen recounted how his errant pickoff attempt while confronting a hopelessly overmatched hitter with two outs once cost the Toronto Blue Jays and himself an important win. Looking around him, Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley noticed eyes that otherwise might have glazed over instead fixed on the staff's only former Cy Young Award and 20-game winner.

"Hearing that from a coach, some guys might listen and some may not," Wiley said. "But to hear it from a guy who's had success, who's still having success and who has the presence of a Pat Hentgen means an awful lot. You can't tell me that doesn't leave an impression on a kid like Sidney Ponson, a B. J. Ryan or a [John] Parrish or [Jay] Spurgeon."

Most in baseball say the Orioles obtained a career half-empty when they signed Hentgen to a two-year, $9.5 million contract Dec. 19. The Orioles insist they not only acquired one of just five pitchers to win at least 10 games in each of the past eight seasons, but have also gained a leader willing to share the intangibles that have made him one of the game's most dogged competitors.

"He may not have the same velocity he had several years ago," Wiley said, "but he has the same determination and an even greater understanding of how to pitch."

Hentgen's understanding extends beyond the mound. Even with a new set of teammates, he easily fit into the role of staff elder.

"Some guys will help you if you approach them, but not everybody's comfortable doing that," said No. 3 starter Jason Johnson. "If Pat sees something, he's not afraid to approach you. He reads things pretty well."

Soon after arriving at spring training, Hentgen overheard Johnson offering unflattering comments about his situation. Hentgen later approached Johnson in the outfield, suggesting he exhibit a cooler demeanor on and off the field.

"Pat's been through more than most of us," Johnson said. "And he's enjoyed success most of us haven't had. When he has something to say, you tend to listen. Or you should."

"You try to help your team any way you can," Hentgen said. "Of course, that means pitching well, first of all, but it can mean other things, too. If there's an opportunity to help people, why not take it?"

Despite a winless spring training capped by two disconcerting outings and more home runs allowed (six) than strikeouts (five), Hentgen today becomes only the second Orioles pitcher other than Mike Mussina to make an Opening Day start since 1995. If anyone can pitch in the long shadow left by Mussina's free-agent defection, the Orioles say it is Hentgen. He receives his first opportunity against the Boston Red Sox and three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez.

"He's not a big guy, but he's one of those guys who looks bigger on the mound," said HTS broadcaster, former left-hander and longtime Hentgen observer Mike Flanagan. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that he's always on top of you. He won't back down from a hitter. Some guys get knocked around a little and they're looking to come out. He's looking for the next hitter."

"I'll promise you one thing," Wiley said. "You will never see Pat Hentgen looking over his shoulder." "Pat Hentgen will walk through a buzz saw," said manager Mike Hargrove. "He's as competitive as any pitcher I've been around."

Hargrove makes no claim about Hentgen's being another Mussina. But within some quarters of a rebuilding organization, that is not seen as entirely a bad thing.

Unimpressed by then-pitching coach Sammy Ellis, Mussina didn't participate in pitchers-and-catchers meetings before each series. He was perceived as unapproachable by some teammates who interpreted his focus as aloofness and, despite leading the American League in innings pitched, he irritated a significant faction by pulling himself from games after reaching a certain pitch count.

The Orioles would be satisfied with 190 innings from Hentgen, because they believe he will squeeze every inning from each start. He may not lead the staff in innings, but his new organization is convinced he will be a leader by word and example.

One thing the Orioles won't do is hang the label of "ace" on him.

"I don't think there are too many staffs in the game where one guy is expected to carry the load all the time," Wiley said. "We're no exception. I think ours is a staff where different guys take turns carrying us during the season. Pat is certainly capable of that."

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