O's Roberts just getting started to see if he can last

April 14, 2001|By John Eisenberg

FOUR BRILLIANT INNINGS, and imaginations start to soar.

One memorable night of scoreless relief, and calculations start to whir.

Is Willis Roberts a potential closer? A starter? A set-up man? Or do the Orioles leave their most surprising pitcher of 2001 right where he is, in long relief?

Mike Hargrove was asked those questions before last night's 2-0 loss to the Devil Rays at Camden Yards, the Orioles' first home game since Roberts' four-inning, seven-strikeout masterpiece in Boston's Fenway Park on Wednesday night. And, at the risk of putting words in the manager's mouth, but to make a long story short, this is essentially what he said, "We don't know, we don't want to know and, at this point, we don't have to know."

In other words: Let's give Roberts, 25, more than four appearances with the Orioles before we start drawing up plans for the rest of his career.

"I like him where he is," Hargrove said, "but no [long-term] decision has been made, and the worst thing would be to make a decision right now based on his last two appearances, and have it be the wrong decision. It's all going Willis' way right now. He's very versatile, he's got great stuff and he's throwing strikes. He needs to continue to do that."

If it all sounds familiar, there's a reason. The Orioles went down the same road with Arthur Rhodes before finding their former pitcher a home in middle and long relief. His career was talk-show fodder for years as he bounced between the rotation and bullpen, always flashing just enough brilliance to keep everyone's imaginations whirring. Rhodes ultimately made the decision for the club. He was too inconsistent as a starter. Lacked the durability to close. Middle and long relief was a last resort, but he was effective in the role and made a career of it.

The lesson? It can take some time to find the right role for a talented pitcher who has bounced around.

"It doesn't matter to me, one way or the other, how they use me," Roberts said with a smile last night. "I'm just excited to get the opportunity."

Can you blame him? Raised in the Dominican Republic and signed at age 17, he was waived by the Tigers and let go by the Reds, before signing with the Orioles on the advice of scout Carlos Bernhardt, who watched him tear up the Dominican league last winter. His career before this season consisted of eight years in the minors in such places as Jacksonville, Toledo, Louisville and Chattanooga, and one major-league appearance.

"Before [this year]," he said, "I didn't have the stuff to pitch in the major leagues."

He does now, which the Red Sox learned Wednesday night as they flailed at his blend of high-90s heaters, sliders and split-fingered fastballs. What happened? How could a guy with a losing record and 4.50 professional ERA before this season suddenly become a bona fide major leaguer?

"There's a lot of reasons," Roberts said. "Before now, my slider was no good. Whenever I threw my slider, I hung my slider. And my splitter [split-fingered fastball] was no good, either. I couldn't throw it for strikes."

Anything else?

"I used to throw everything 100 mph," he said. "Now, I have learned to take some [speed] off. So I start getting guys out. And my confidence has gone way up."

Said Hargrove: "He's throwing more strikes, getting ahead in counts. Some guys are just late bloomers. Maybe [pitching coach Mark] Wiley helped him. I look at [hard-throwing] Rudy Seanez. He ran out of options in Cleveland and the Indians lost him and he bounced around [for years] and then goes to Atlanta and turns out to be good. It happens."

It does - in baseball more than any other sport. One team's spare part becomes the next team's centerpiece, for reasons no one can explain. A little adjustment here, a word of advice there, and magic happens.

"The morning after my Boston appearance, the phone started ringing in my hotel room," Roberts said. "My best friend called. My mother. My wife and son. My father. They all said, `You did it, you won a big league game!'"

He won it so impressively that it was impossible not to let your imagination wander at least a little. He certainly has the look of a potential closer.

"I thought of it the first time I saw him pitch against competition," Hargrove confessed. "But we have a closer [Ryan Kohlmeier] who is in no danger of losing his job. That gives us the luxury of picking whatever spots we want with Willis."

The long-term questions are many at this point. Does Roberts have the mental strength to take the ball one night after a blown save and do the job? Can his arm handle the load? Or would he be more effective as starter, a role in which he made 108 of his 192 minor-league appearances?

Most importantly, can a guy who has struggled for so long be trusted to continue to dominate?

It's just too soon to know.

"I'm not even thinking about [success in] Boston now," Roberts said. "To make it in the big leagues you have to be consistent. One game means nothing."

His start is the best thing to happen to the Orioles in the first 10 games of 2001, hinting at the discovery of one of those hidden treasures. And with so little at stake this season, it certainly doesn't hurt to debate his future.

But Roberts is just getting started, just trying to establish himself. It's a situation that calls for patience. Give him time to grow.

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