Julio closing in on Orioles role

Wary of pressure, team avoids naming him officially to post

April 03, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Fearing the backlash that comes with a blown save, the Orioles have been careful not to name Jorge Julio as their closer, even though he posted a 0.69 ERA this spring and led the American League with four saves.

But having seen Julio, 23, close games in the Venezuelan Winter League, Orioles utility man Melvin Mora said Julio is more than ready for the challenge.

"The difference between here and there is they boo you here, but they can't touch you because they'll go to jail," Mora said. "There, it's dangerous if you lose the game. I told him, `You're not going to have a problem here.' "

Armed with a 98-mph fastball and an equally vicious slider, Julio allowed just one run this spring in 13 innings, walking two and striking out 15.

Still, manager Mike Hargrove says he will use a closer-by-committee approach for now, with Willis Roberts and left-hander Buddy Groom also expected to get save opportunities.

Asked why he doesn't just make it official and name Julio the closer, Hargrove said, "Because he's 23." Basically, Julio is progressing so well, Hargrove doesn't want to do anything that will stunt that growth.

"We like what we've seen," said pitching coach Mark Wiley. "And he's going to get opportunities now, so we'll see where it goes. I think he's got a good head on his shoulders, and he should be able to come back from tough outings."

For Orioles fans, Julio is bound to draw comparisons to Armando Benitez, the hard-throwing closer the team traded to the New York Mets in a three-team deal that sent Charles Johnson to the Orioles. The Dominican-born Benitez has 84 saves over the past two seasons for the Mets.

But Benitez has a reputation for being too emotional on the mound, witnessed by his infamous beaning of Tino Martinez, which touched off a brawl between the Yankees and Orioles in 1998. At the time, Benitez was 25, and then-Orioles manager Ray Miller issued an apology for the pitcher's actions.

So far, Julio has been the picture of calm. His favorite closer is mild-mannered Yankee Mariano Rivera. And three hours before the Orioles took the field against the Yankees for Opening Day, Julio sat talking about how excited he was to see his wife and kids, who were scheduled to join him yesterday from Venezuela.

"I call them every day," Julio said.

If Julio was going to blow a gasket, it could have happened last year. He gave up three runs in each of his first two major-league appearances. After returning to the minors to refine his slider, Julio came back and held opponents without a run in 13 of 16 outings.

Just one year earlier, in the Montreal Expos organization, Julio had gone 2-10 at Single-A Jupiter. But Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift liked him enough to grab him from the Expos for longtime third base prospect Ryan Minor.

"Last year, I felt good because I was playing A ball [in 2000], and I didn't have a lot of experience," Julio said. "This year, I'm more focused on my job. I don't care if I close or don't close. I only want to be in the big leagues."

Julio's first test of the season was an easy one. After using Roberts in the eighth inning Monday, Hargrove summoned Julio to protect a seven-run lead in the ninth.

There was plenty of margin for error, and Julio needed it, because Shane Spencer greeted him with a double to left-center field. Julio then walked No. 9 hitter Nick Johnson, putting two men on for the top of the order.

A crowd of 48,058, the largest for an opener at Camden Yards, began to stir. They had seen Tony Batista hit a grand slam and Melvin Mora hit a three-run double against Roger Clemens, and now they wanted to see Julio put the Yankees out of their misery.

Julio gathered himself and got Alfonso Soriano to hit a little bouncer in front of home for the first out. The runners advanced to second and third, but Derek Jeter lined to first, and Jason Giambi grounded to short, ending the game.

Afterward, Julio found himself getting the congratulatory handshakes normally reserved for a closer.

"We've got a lot of guys here who could close games," Mora said. "It's a manager's decision, but for me, I'd put Julio in. This guy has more experience."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: New York Yankees

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:05

TV/Radio: CSN (except Wash. area)/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Yankees' David Wells (5-7, 4.47 in 2001) vs. Orioles' Jason Johnson (10-12, 4.09 in 2001)

Orioles schedule

3 -- NYY 7:05 CSN

4 -- NYY 7:05 CSN

5 -- BOS 7:05 13

6 -- BOS 1:35 CSN

7 -- BOS 1:35 CSN

8 -- OFF

9 -- T.B. 7:05 54

All games are broadcast on WBAL (1090AM)

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