Feeling the pinch, Hentgen doesn't flinch

April 03, 2001|By John Eisenberg

HERE WERE THE circumstances of Pat Hentgen's first start for the Orioles yesterday at Camden Yards: He was replacing Mike Mussina and facing Pedro Martinez before a full house on Opening Day, with the memory of his miserable spring season still fresh.

How about that for a barrel of fun?

"Knowing Pat," Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston said, "I'm sure he took it as a challenge."

Hentgen wouldn't confess in those terms later -- he's as low-key in the clubhouse as he is poker-faced on the field -- but when a guy has won 120 major-league games with pretty good stuff and a competitive nature bordering on the ferocious, you know what he was thinking in such a situation:

Come on, be perfect.

And he almost was.

The 46,547 fans who saw the Orioles take on the Red Sox on a chilly afternoon weren't yearning for Mussina one bit when they rose and gave Hentgen a prolonged ovation as he exited the game with two outs in the top of the ninth and the score tied at 1. All he had done was outpitch Martinez and set up the Orioles for a win few expected, giving a performance that ranked right up with Rick Sutcliffe's in 1992 as the best by any Oriole on an Opening Day at Camden Yards.

"He made one bad pitch out of the more than 100 he threw, which is how you have to pitch to have a chance against the best in the business [Martinez]," manager Mike Hargrove said after the Orioles scored in the bottom of the 11th to win, 2-1.

Martinez graciously went even further: "Pat just outpitched me today. He really threw well."

Not that Martinez was anyone's slouch; he gave up four hits and one run and struck out six before removing himself after seven innings, fearful of throwing more than 100 pitches -- a performance that would have been good enough for the win against the Hentgen who struggled (0-3, 6.00 ERA) through spring training,

But that Hentgen stayed in Florida and the one who warranted a two-year, $9.6 million deal last winter showed up. He also allowed one run on four hits and struck out six, retiring 10 batters to start the game and surviving a draining jam in the ninth with last-out help from Ryan Kohlmeier.

What went right for him, suddenly? He threw more breaking balls, kept his pitches down and stayed out of trouble, retiring the leadoff hitter in every inning until the ninth. His cut fastball was especially tough on left-handers and his curve was sharp. It was a vintage outing for a veteran who has a 20-win season and a World Series win on his resume -- two items that Mussina, for one, lacks.

"I don't know, I just felt good," he said. "I made some bad pitches and got away with them, especially early. But you know what? I made some good pitches, too."

That was his only hint at boastfulness after the game; he repeatedly lateraled credit to a defense that backed him with several tough plays and the on-field management of catcher Brook Fordyce.

"This is a great team win," he said.

Predictably, a question about showing the fans that he could replace Mussina went nowhere.

"I wouldn't want to say that," he said.

He knows better than to make a fuss about any individual outing, even one this important.

Still, in a town that doesn't forget such things -- they're still talking about Clint Courtney's Opening Day home run in 1954 -- this was a first impression worth framing.

The signature moment came in the top of the ninth, when the game almost got away. Boston's Chris Stynes led off with a single to left and Trot Nixon followed with a sacrifice bunt that dropped in front of the mound. Cal Ripken charged the ball and called for it, but Hentgen waved him off, fell to the ground to grab the ball and turned and threw a strike to first -- a portrait of a competitor.

"I smelled an out," Hentgen said simply.

After issuing an intentional walk, Hentgen threw a wild pitch to advance the runners to second and third with one out -- a precarious situation to say the least with Darren Lewis and Carl Everett due up.

But Hentgen got Lewis to ground to shortstop Mike Bordick, who threw out Stynes at home, and then Kohlmeier came on and got Everett to ground to Ripken.

When the Orioles completed the escape with the winning run two innings later, Hentgen's day was complete.

"It was special to come off the field [in the ninth] and get an ovation like that in your first game for a new team," he said. "I've said all along that this is a great baseball town. But what was really nice was winning the game."

Yes, the imploding, dysfunctional Red Sox contributed; they had an almost $40 million payroll on the bench for several late innings after Manny Ramirez left with a sore hamstring in the seventh.

You could almost hear the Orioles sighing with relief in the other clubhouse, remembering when they lived with such complexities.

It's a different time now, for better or worse, as Hentgen's presence indicated perhaps best of all; Mussina had started six of the club's previous seven home openers, becoming a fixture.

But while there's no way of knowing what happens next, what happened yesterday was special. The new pitcher in town stared right into circumstances so daunting they probably would qualify as an "abyss" in Brian Billick's judgment, and the pitcher didn't just survive, he prospered.

"He's got a ton of character," Hairston said, "and you saw it out there today."

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