Bullish 'pen holds Rays for 3-1 win

Mainstay Trombley's 2 1/3 shutout innings set up Kohlmeier save

Hairston homers, doubles

Relief in close games spurs O's 6th win in 9

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

According to Mike Trombley, the best relief pitchers should wear numbers like 66 and 75, down-and-dirty numbers assigned to NFL offensive linemen, numbers that are usually discussed after failure rather than success.

"A bullpen wants to be like an offensive line in football," the Orioles middle reliever said. "It wants to be anonymous."

But last night Trombley could only blame himself for slipping into the bright lights. With one out in the sixth inning, he inherited a 2-1 lead with the tying run at third base from starter Jason Johnson, who used 100 pitches to get 17 outs. Appearing for the eighth time in his team's past 10 games, Trombley provided 2 1/3 innings of shutout relief, leaving a two-run lead for Ryan Kohlmeier to convert into his sixth save.

Given a two-run home run by second baseman Jerry Hairston, Johnson (2-2) survived 5 2/3 innings to double last season's win total. Also unlike last season, he could trust his bullpen with a sliver of a lead.

"It's basically just throwing strikes," Trombley said after lowering his ERA to 1.96 in 18 1/3 innings covering 13 appearances. "I'm not a big guy who can go 1-0 and 2-0 then throw a fastball and get them to foul it off."

Trombley is representative of a transformed bullpen. A year ago he stumbled badly in April and May, testing his manager's confidence and misplacing the feel for his signature split-fingered pitch. Now Trombley has regained the touch on his best pitch and developed a sweeping sidearm curveball that often freezes right-handed hitters. Best of all, he has regained familiarity with the strike zone.

"I don't know what it was" last year, Trombley said. "I was with a new organzation, trying to impress new people and a new manager. It took me awhile to get comfortable, I guess. We all were going through a rough time."

The Orioles exited April two games below .500 despite a .228 average, the worst power numbers in the American League and a 6-13 record plus 5.07 ERA by the starting rotation. Solid defense and a revived bullpen compensated.

Last night Johnson, Trombley and Kohlmeier combined for a four-hitter that included eight strikeouts vs. three walks.

A year ago, manager Mike Hargrove ground his teeth while his reconstructed bullpen ruined a breakout first month. The Orioles began 5-1, 11-5 and 15-10 while repeatedly stymied by relievers who compiled a 6.04 ERA and blew five of nine save chances.

Following their 5-1 start, Tim Worrell, Trombley, B. J. Ryan and Buddy Groom lost on consecutive nights as the Orioles dropped three one-run games and a fourth in extra innings. Lacking a reliable closer as Trombley and Chuck McElroy also struggled in middle relief, the bullpen absorbed four of the team's first five losses and bungled 19 of its first 31 save opportunities.

"I think very typical of the bullpen last year was a ballgame in Oakland where we scored 12 or 14 runs and had to use three guys in the ninth inning to close the game out," Hargrove reflected.

Much the same cast that finished last season with a 5.58 ERA has flourished under new pitching coach Mark Wiley. Rookie additions Jorge Julio, Chad Paronto and Josh Towers have made only seven combined appearances -- six of them Paronto's -- while a veteran core has held.

"That's the way it should be. I know they're major-league hitters, but we're here to do a job and we should expect to succeed," Trombley said.

The bullpen carries a 3.53 ERA (79 innings, 31 earned runs) into the season's fifth week. It was the last American League bullpen to allow a run this season. Trombley has struck out hitters in 12 of 14 outings while allowing runs in only three appearances.

"He's very unflappable," Hargrove said about Trombley. "He throws strikes and he's got a nasty out pitch. When a guy throws a good split-finger, it's an absolutely difficult pitch to hit. A lot of times the ball is in the strike zone and you go to swing at it, the break is so violent and so big. It's difficult to square up on it."

After Hairston's homer, not only his second of the season, but his second of the season against Rays starter Bryan Rekar (0-4), the Orioles scored an important insurance run in the seventh. Brady Anderson followed Hairston's two-out double with his third RBI of the series, a single that gave Kohlmeier a two-run cushion.

The Orioles have won six of their last nine because they no longer flinch in one-run games. They are 9-4 in games decided by two runs or less and have converted eight of 10 saves.

"Those guys," said left fielder Delino DeShields, "have been the strength of the team."

Trombley suffered seven blown saves last year, eighth-most in the league, while surrendering 15 home runs in 72 innings. For much of the year he groped for the split-fingered pitch that had made him one of the league's most consistent and durable middle relievers before the Orioles signed him to a three-year, $7.75 million contract.

Now he more closely resembles the pitcher who saved 24 games for the Minnesota Twins in 1999.

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