In closing, Kohlmeier says volumes about coolness and modesty

Inside the Orioles

At 23, surprised with role, he's taking it day at time

Baseball

April 08, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND - Ryan Kohlmeier survived the winter as the Orioles' closer. To listen to him, no one was more surprised than Ryan Kohlmeier.

In a role that almost demands bulletproof confidence coupled with an irritating swagger, the Orioles' right-hander is a stark, even refreshing, exception.

He knows he was handed the role last summer quite by accident and views his return in much the same way, no matter how much the Orioles compliment him on his makeup, his cool and his talent.

"My stuff and my physical makeup is just not what you see in your prototypical closer," Kohl meier says. "I throw low-90s with an average slider while I'm working on a changeup."

At 23, Kohlmeier is the youngest closer in the American League and is still considered a rookie despite making 25 appearances during a surprising 2000 debut.

Able to convert 13 of 14 save chances last season before even attending a major-league spring training, he emerged behind Pat Hentgen and Buddy Groom on Opening Day to secure the first win of his major-league career.

He has done nothing wrong since being promoted from Rochester last July 28 to replace Scott Erickson on the Orioles' roster, but Kohlmeier senses his role is a temporary one.

Perhaps most impressively, he doesn't really care.

"Coming up, I thought in the big leagues I would probably be working as a setup man or long relief," Kohlmeier says. "To be honest with you, I still think that's got a real good chance of happening. I don't know how long I'll be in this role.

"I'll keep going out there as long as they keep putting me out there, but it's definitely not what I envisioned. The way things panned out last year, I was just in the right place at the right time and happened to be pitching well when all the trades were getting ready to go down."

Kohlmeier arrived the day before the Orioles traded closer Mike Timlin to the St. Louis Cardinals for first baseman Chris Richard and was handed a job he always thought was made for others.

Truth be told, the Orioles see it in a similar light; however, attempts at fortifying their bullpen exploded on the launching pad last winter.

Jeff Nelson went to Seattle rather than take a shot at closing for his hometown team. Health question Tom Gordon came to Baltimore, passed two team physicals, then had a three-year deal that crumbled at the last moment. Turk Wendell came, saw, then decided to remain with the New York Mets.

"I think with all their efforts to go out and sign an established closer, their thinking was kind of apparent," Kohlmeier said.

A son of eastern Kansas who fully embraced his Christian faith at 17, Kohlmeier cares little about the financial implications of a possible role change. Mention of what an arbitration-eligible closer earns compared with a middle reliever draws nothing more than a slight grin.

Kohlmeier, a 14th-round pick in the 1996 draft, never expected to become an impact major-league pitcher, certainly not at his precocious age.

"I think it helps me a little to deal with the pressure of closing because I don't see myself as a closer," Kohlmeier says. "When I go out there in the ninth inning, I see my job as the same as every other pitcher - not to give up any hits and not to give up any runs.

"There is more pressure because if I screw it up, the game's over. I just have never really felt it. Maybe that's what has helped me move into the role."

His outlook contrasts to that of his predecessor, Timlin. Upon signing an eye-popping four-year, $16 million contract before the 1999 season, Timlin obsessed over preserving a role he had never held for an entire season.

He reached a point last season at which manager Mike Hargrove purposefully withheld the title from him, thinking the veteran would perform better if trying to reclaim it instead of defending it.

Few pitchers arrive at their first major-league camp having already saved 13 games. Kohlmeier did. But instead of arriving with a sense of entitlement, he looked around in awe.

"Watching some of those guys who didn't make this team this spring ... those guys without a doubt have better stuff than I do. Chad Paronto has much better stuff," Kohlmeier says.

"But for some reason - whether it's deception or my ability to stay cool under pressure - it works for me. Maybe it's something other guys don't have."

Kohmeier struggles to answer a question about his most thrilling major-league moment. He decides on a save against the Oakland Athletics last Sept. 20, a game that did nothing for the Orioles' standing.

His satisfaction stemmed more from what his appearance meant to others, as his close secured a 2-0 win for Chuck McElroy in the career reliever's first major-league start.

"That was a big moment, I think, because it meant something to a lot of people besides myself," he recalls. "I was nervous for him and myself."

The Orioles say they aren't nervous for Kohlmeier. Regardless of role, he embodies the makeup that the organization is trying to make a given at all levels.

"It's an old saying, but he has ice in his veins," says vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "He has no fear."

A sweeping transition leaves the Orioles in a position in which promises aren't offered. Even so, Kohlmeier, the accidental closer, looks around himself and extends one of his own.

"I will never ever take a day up here for granted, because I've seen how fast it can slip away, and I know it can disappear in a second," he says.

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