O's bullpen proves a sturdy safety net, holds up to heavy use

Series of short starts applies pressure, but 'pen responds with five wins

April 15, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

With the exception of Pat Hentgen, no Orioles starter has gone more than five innings since April 6. With the exception of Ryan Kohlmeier, no reliever on the active roster has given up a run. The safety net provided by the bullpen remains strong - and a necessity.

It began to fray a little yesterday when Kohlmeier, handed a two-run lead in the ninth, served up a leadoff homer to pinch hitter Randy Winn and walked the next batter. But two strikeouts and a pop-up preserved the Orioles' 6-5 victory and assured Kohlmeier of his second save.

Chuck McElroy has been lifted after five and 3 2/3 innings in his two starts this season, including yesterday's abbreviated outing. Sidney Ponson went 3 1/3 innings on Tuesday. Jason Johnson didn't make it through the fifth on Wednesday. Jose Mercedes went from being perfect to pummeled during his 4 1/3 innings on Thursday. But the bullpen remains mostly bulletproof.

Left-hander John Bale and Mike Trombley combined for 4 1/3 scoreless innings before Winn connected off Kohlmeier. The group's ERA was lowered to 1.74, which includes the four earned runs allowed by Calvin Maduro before he went to Triple-A Rochester.

"The bullpen's always huge for a team," Kohlmeier said. "It's hard on a team when you lose your lead in the late innings. But not only our bullpen, I think all our pitchers have done a great job of keeping us in ballgames so far. I think we're going to win a lot of games."

They've been winning most of the battles after the starters leave.

The relievers own all five victories this season, while the starters have taken five of the six losses. Maduro holds the other one, but his parting shot consisted of 2 2/3 scoreless innings on Thursday after the Orioles placed him on waivers.

They were down 4-0 yesterday when McElroy was lifted after a two-out double by Gerald Williams in the fourth. Williams stole third on Bale's first pitch before Russ Johnson grounded to third. Greg Vaughn walked leading off the fifth, but Bale retired five in a row.

In the meantime, the Orioles were rallying for four runs in the fourth and two more in the fifth to make Bale the pitcher of record. What ensued was his first major-league victory in only his fourth appearance, including three with Toronto before a December trade during the winter meetings.

If only he had the ball to show for it. Bale was told after the game that first baseman Chris Richard tossed it into the stands after the last out, just as he did when Willis Roberts got his first big-league win on Wednesday.

"That's OK. I don't really need a ball to show for it," said Bale, who allowed only one hit in 2 1/3 innings.

Bale didn't make the club out of spring training after allowing 11 earned runs in 14 1/3 innings. He was called up from Rochester to replace Maduro and displayed better velocity and location.

"I was pretty excited so I was probably letting it go," he said. " ... It feels really good to get back to throwing my pitches."

It's been a wild, and occasionally terrifying five months for Bale, who also was robbed at gunpoint in Venezuela this winter and experienced the birth of his first child in February. "It's been a merry-go-round, but it's all worked out for the best," he said.

Manager Mike Hargrove figured it would benefit Bale yesterday to enter the game in a "fairly non-pressure situation."

"Once we got the lead, I was very curious how he was going to throw because a lot of times pitchers are different pitchers once the shoe's on the other foot, but John still threw strikes," Hargrove said. "He got us to the point where we could go to Trombley in the seventh, and Mike came in and also did a great job."

Trombley celebrated his 34th birthday by retiring all six batters he faced, including two strikeouts.

"He struggled with the first hitter [Johnson] and finally found his command, and he was absolutely dynamite after that," Hargrove said. " ... A lot of people did their jobs for us today to allow us to win."

Trombley also pitched a perfect inning on Tuesday and Thursday.

"It's basically just throwing strikes," he said. "Like today, I didn't want to walk anybody. I wanted to throw strikes and keep them on the defensive up there. Whether they're great pitches or not, it's a strike. I'm throwing good. That's all there is to it. I always say you never pitch as good as you think, and you never pitch as bad as you think. Just keep a level head and take it as it comes."

Kohlmeier got a piece of the bullpen's glory by bearing down after a leadoff home run, walk and stolen base put the tying run in scoring position.

"As a closer, you say your role isn't any different than anybody else's. You're just out there to get outs. But at the same time, you've had guys battling out there for eight innings before you get out there. You hate to see it fall apart in the ninth," he said.

"I've had a couple rough outings, so this was a good confidence-builder for me."

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