If given the choice, Groom would prefer role as set-up man


Despite 11 saves in '01, relief pitcher is not comfortable as closer


February 17, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The first pitcher to arrive at the Orioles' spring training complex on Thursday, left-hander Buddy Groom might be the first to leave for an extended period.

Groom's wife, Angela, is expecting the couple's fifth child, and doctors will induce labor this week. Groom will fly home to Red Oak, Texas, on Thursday afternoon after working out at the ballpark. He will return two days later.

"I can't afford to be gone any longer than that," he said.

Groom led the club in saves with 11 last season, but when he looks in a mirror, he's more likely to see a father of five than a closer.

"From time to time I could be doing that, depending if there's a team with a lot of lefties coming up. But I don't know that I'll be doing it full time. It might just be certain situations," he said before heading outside for the second day of workouts for pitchers and catchers.

"I think they would prefer to leave me in the role I was in, a set-up role, and I'd prefer to do that. That's where I'm best suited to help the team."

Groom never had more than three saves in a season before getting four in 2000. He easily topped that figure last summer while appearing in 70 games for the sixth straight year, tying the Arizona Diamondbacks' Mike Myers for the major-league record. He joined the late-inning committee after Ryan Kohlmeier faltered and before Willis Roberts was auditioned.

"Closing is a tough job," Groom said. "I loved the challenge of it, but I've never done it for a full season."

The Orioles' bullpen appears more formidable from the left side with Groom and B.J. Ryan. John Parrish, whose fastball is reaching the mid-90s, and John Bale are competing for a third spot. The right side isn't in such experienced hands, with Roberts, Jorge Julio and Kris Foster vying for closer and set-up roles.

"I think the bullpen's shaping up pretty good," Groom said. "A lot of these young guys, like Julio and Willis, got some time under their belt. That's a big thing. They've been through the league, they've been through all the cities. You've got some guys who can throw hard. They all throw mid-90s. How consistently they can throw strikes is what we're going to find out this year. And does that one year of big-league time go to their heads?"

New work ethic

Once reprimanded by the organization for a poor attitude and suspect conditioning, pitcher Matt Riley said he's in the best shape of his life.

"I worked out hard. I killed myself this off-season, but it was worth it," he said. "I'm looking forward to coming out here and playing ball again. It seems like it's been ages since I've done that."

Riley is testing himself with bullpen sessions again after ligament-transplant surgery that kept him from pitching in 2001. He's likely to begin the season at Double-A Bowie but will compete for the fifth starter's job.

Scott Erickson, who had the same surgery a month before Riley, found it easier to cope with the injury by being away from the club.

"Sitting on the bench every night would have been nerve-wracking," said Erickson, who rehabbed with Riley last summer at the minor-league complex in Sarasota, Fla. "I tried to keep a positive frame of mind and know it was going to be worth it when I came back and hopefully be that much better."

A pitcher's travels

Getting to Fort Lauderdale must have seemed a breeze for minor-league pitcher Steve Bechler compared to his travels last season, when the Orioles abruptly sent him to Triple-A Rochester for an emergency start rather than letting him pitch in the Single-A Carolina League's All-Star Game.

Bechler drove overnight from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Frederick, arriving at his apartment after 7 a.m., then flew to Toledo, Ohio, with a stop in Pittsburgh. Unable to eat or sleep, he stepped on the field at 6:15 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game and almost fainted on the mound.

After going 5-2 with a 2.27 ERA in 13 starts with the Keys, Bechler was torched for 11 runs in two innings. He made one more start, retiring 14 in a row after allowing three first-inning runs, before being moved to Double-A Bowie.

"Luckily, they gave me a second chance," said Bechler, a third-round selection in the 1998 draft out of South Medford (Ore.) High. "Once I got lit up there, I was thinking, `Oh man, I don't belong here.' "

The results didn't get any better in the Arizona Fall League, where Bechler went 0-5 with a 7.56 ERA in 25 innings with Maryvale.

"I was just tired," he said. "I went over there and tried to pitch my best, but it just finally got to me, all the innings and the wear and tear."

Baseball America rates Bechler as the organization's 15th-best prospect. He's on the 40-man roster this year, and arrived in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday with the other pitchers. He'll be assigned to Bowie or Rochester after getting a look here.

"I want to get in their minds," he said. "I'm in a win-win situation. I'll give it a whirl."

Around the horn

Count shortstop Mike Bordick and infielder Brian Roberts among the early arrivals to camp. Catcher Geronimo Gil reported after being detained in Mexico. ... Yesterday's workout was cut short due to rain.

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