Lefty Runyan out to show right stuff

Often-injured reliever fights for job with O's

February 26, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Given their stated preference, the Orioles will count three left-handers in their bullpen when spring training ends next month. And if a fourth reliever who throws from that side warrants a job over everyone else competing for a roster spot, the team could decide to make room for him, as well.

Buddy Groom and B.J. Ryan are locks if still healthy when camp breaks. John Parrish and John Bale, with experience as starters, seemingly would round out the foursome.

"If they're the best four among 12 guys, so be it," said Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president for baseball operations.

Former manager Whitey Herzog would have kept five left-handers in his bullpens if given the leeway. Perhaps that's the only chance Sean Runyan has with the Orioles, though he's attempting to overcome more than a crowded pitching staff.

In camp this spring as a nonroster invitee, Runyan appeared in 88 games with the Detroit Tigers as a rookie in 1998 before his performance declined drastically.

"That's because my arm fell off," he said.

It's good to know that Runyan hasn't lost a limb or his sense of humor.

Released on July 4 after 11 outings with Triple-A Toledo, Runyan is hoping to stay with the Orioles or remain a phone call away at Rochester. Just as long as he's pitching again.

He missed a week in April with a strained lower back and went on the disabled list for a second time in May with pain in the same shoulder that has undergone two arthroscopic procedures. The first occurred after the 1998 season to clean some fraying in his labrum.

"It wasn't that big of a deal," he said, "but the Tigers felt like it would be a good idea to go in there and clean it up."

Another surgery came nine months later, after Runyan arrived at spring training with a sore arm and no intention of publicizing it.

"Being a younger guy and knowing you have a big-league job, I wasn't about to miss any time," he said.

That's about all he's done since then, appearing in only 15 major-league games, including three in 2000 before elbow surgery in September.

If able to turn back time, Runyan wouldn't change the workload in '98, only his approach the next year.

"I just tried to pitch through it and pitch through it, and about two months into the season I just hit a wall and I knew I messed it up," he said. "That's when everything started."

Asked if the 88 appearances, which covered 50 1/3 innings and broke Mike Myers' rookie record for games, caused the arm problem, Runyan said: "No player would want to point at something like that and say, `That's what hurt me,' because I would do it again in a heartbeat if I was given a chance."

Before being drafted by Detroit out of the San Diego Padres organization, Runyan never had pitched above Double-A. "Maybe it was just a matter of me being young," he said. "Maybe I didn't take care of myself properly. It could have been a number of things."

The numbers in camp this year don't favor Runyan, 27, who worked out for Thrift while attending Urbandale (Iowa) High School. But Thrift remembers how Runyan dominated the Orioles in '98, "and we had a pretty good team," he said.

"He's all right so far," Thrift said. "We took a chance on him based on what we thought he might be able to do."

The Orioles have changed Runyan's arm angle, instructing him to no longer drop down before releasing the ball. "They have me coming up a little bit," he said. "I'm trying to stay on top of the ball more and take a lot of the pressure off my shoulder and putting it where it belongs, like my legs."

Runyan tossed a scoreless inning in yesterday's intrasquad game, replacing starter Chris Brock in the second and allowing one runner. Jay Gibbons reached when third baseman Tony Batista misplayed his grounder, but Domingo Martinez hit into a double play.

"If we can keep him healthy, we might have something," said manager Mike Hargrove. "When he's been healthy, he's been a good major-league pitcher."

He might have to settle for being a useful minor-league pitcher until a spot opens. And he also might have to settle for staying off the disabled list, a challenge as formidable as coming into a game with the bases loaded.

"I look at getting hurt like getting a virus. You can't get rid of it," he said. "One shoulder injury led to another shoulder injury, which led to an elbow injury. I just couldn't seem to get rid of it. But I'm feeling pretty strong now.

"Obviously, they've got some good lefties, but it's a new organization. I just want to make an impression and not put too much pressure on myself. Whatever happens, happens. All I can do is pitch."

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