Groom sets up 'pen for success

O's veteran reliever adds stability to team's young relief corps


May 21, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Buddy Groom is aware that some eyebrows were raised this spring when the Orioles signed him to a two-year contract extension that included a club option for 2005. Leave it to the veteran left-hander to respond by raising his level of play.

While most of the attention in the Orioles' bullpen has fallen on young closer Jorge Julio, who barely can afford to have anything else piled on him, Groom quietly is piecing together one of his finest seasons.

Setup men usually go unnoticed, which is why they don't bother reaching out when the Cy Young or Rolaids Relief awards are passed around. Groom refuses to be ignored, however, and his actions continue to speak loudest. Each time he dispatches another first batter, each time he leaves the bases cluttered while cleaning someone else's mess, he makes it easier to understand why the Orioles tied themselves a little tighter to a pitcher who turns 37 in July.

"I don't see it as any pressure on myself. I just see it as I've got a job to do and I want to do it the best I can. If I was doing any other job, I'd approach it the same way," he said.

"I'm going out there to be the best I can be every day, to get my job done, and that's to keep runners from scoring and hold us where we're at in the game."

As the Orioles begin their two-city West Coast trip with tonight's game in Oakland. Groom has allowed runs in only two of his 18 appearances while crafting a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings. But his effectiveness is best measured in all 12 inherited runners he's stranded this season, including Tampa Bay's Randy Winn in the ninth inning of Saturday's crushing defeat at Camden Yards.

Groom entered after Winn's leadoff walk against rookie Rick Bauer and struck out the next two batters, both left-handed, to preserve a 3-3 tie. Manager Mike Hargrove summoned Julio to face the right-handed-hitting Greg Vaughn, who launched a decisive home run.

"To me, it's more important that I strand all of them, or however many I can, than my ERA or my other numbers," Groom said. "That's big for any reliever. What are you doing when guys are on base? Are you keeping them from scoring? That's what I take the most pride in."

By striking out Steve Cox for the first out, Groom had retired 16 first batters faced in 17 chances, the exception being an intentional walk to Tampa Bay pinch hitter Russ Johnson on May 10.

"That's real big. That's why you have no inherited runners scoring," he said. "It's just one of those amazing things that's happening right now. Who knows what's going to happen as the season continues on? But that's my goal. The first guy is the most important guy. Then I'll deal with the others after that."

"With all relief pitchers, especially the back end, you look at their inherited runners," said manager Mike Hargrove. "That's probably the most important statistic to look at, and it's usually directly related to first outs."

Rather than sit comfortably on the season's first two months, Groom squirms over a few loose springs. He was dominant in his most recent appearance, but finds fault with Friday's three-batter tour of the Devil Rays' lineup.

Groom retired Cox on a fly ball to right, but hung a slider on the first pitch. "And I didn't make some quality pitches to [Ben] Grieve either," he said, not satisfied with a groundout. And despite acknowledging he was pitching Vaughn carefully, Groom saw no justification in walking him.

"I felt like the first night against these guys, I got a little lucky," he said. "I didn't feel as sharp as I did Saturday, but that's part of surviving. Even when the battles have come, I've survived for the most part."

Maybe that explains the 11 major-league seasons, the record-tying six consecutive years with 70 or more appearances, the steady interest from contenders when the trade deadline approaches. He always seems to be standing at the end of a battle.

"I would have to believe there are a lot of teams that would like to have Buddy Groom doing for them what he's doing for us. Buddy is very valuable," Hargrove said.

"He keeps himself in great shape, he's left-handed, he throws strikes and he has great stuff. Guys like that, as long as they stay away from injuries, pitch for a long, long time. He's really gotten better as he's gotten older. He throws harder now than when he was 24, 25."

Groom is surrounded by live arms, most of them not far removed from being draped over the seat of a minor-league bus. He's easily the senior member of the relief corps.

"There are some differences in things we like, but that's normal because of the age difference," he said. "I didn't really think about it until I got here this year."

When Julio surrendered a walk-off home run to Winn on May 11, Groom made sure to counsel him the next day.

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