Rotation at heart of A's health

Mulder's 6 strong innings prove shot in the arm

May 29, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Oakland Athletics won 102 regular-season games last year, thanks in large part to a strong young starting rotation that was the envy of major leagues and, apparently, the salvation of a medium-market team in transition.

The A's couldn't afford to keep together an offensive lineup that used to include 2000 American League MVP Jason Giambi or All-Star outfielder Johnny Damon, but - by most accounts - things were supposed to be all right because the game is about pitching and the A's had plenty.

So, here it is, almost June, and manager Art Howe is trying to hold his rotation together with equal parts of optimism and anti-inflammatory medication. So, here it is, almost June, and he's got to wonder just where his next strong start is going to come from.

Finally, in last night's 5-2 victory over the Orioles at Camden Yards, Howe got the answer.

Left-hander Mark Mulder, who won 21 games and finished second in the balloting for last year's Cy Young Award, pitched six innings and gave up two runs (one earned) to register his third victory of the season.

He survived a rocky second inning, a little bad luck and some shaky defense to win for the first time since April 6 and deliver his strongest outing since returning from nearly a month on the disabled list.

"That was what we needed, six good ones [innings]," said Howe, whose team suddenly is enjoying a four-game winning streak after sliding into a discouraging 5-15 slump.

Mulder insisted that he wasn't particularly concerned about his health, since he is nearly three weeks removed from the forearm strain that sidelined him for most of April, but he admitted that he was relieved when he reached the bullpen for his pregame warmup and found his mechanics had fallen in place.

"I felt probably as good as I have since my second start of the year," he said. "Ever since I came off the disabled list, my arm action, delivery, everything felt so herky-jerky. I was doing some things differently, and then I went back to the way I was doing them before and that felt strange, too. Today was the first time I felt normal."

Perhaps that was because he was back on normal rest for the first time since he re-entered the rotation on May 10. Howe flip-flopped his rotation for the two-game series to move Mulder up a day and get him back on turn.

"He came through it with flying colors," Howe said. "He wanted to stay on turn. We've been trying to baby him, give him an extra day of rest here and there, and it really hasn't worked."

There had been some question about his velocity after he returned from the forearm problem, especially after he asked the club not to post his radar gun readings on the scoreboard at Network Associates Coliseum, but the Camden Yards gun clocked his fastball at 92 miles per hour - very close to his normal range.

"People made a big deal of my turning off the gun," Mulder said, "but that gun wasn't accurate for left-handers. They were getting a different reading behind the plate and I didn't want anybody thinking there was something wrong, when there wasn't."

The A's can only hope that Mulder's solid start is an indication that things are starting to go right again for the whole team. Injured pitcher Cory Lidle is due to come off the disabled list this weekend and bring the rotation back to full strength.

"We need to turn it around," Mulder said. "Hopefully, this is a good sign for us. We definitely need to pitch well."

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