O's 'pen quietly scripts a gem

Youthful relief corps leads league in wins, but is just starting to get noticed

Bauer: `The secret's out now'

Julio, Roberts flourish, as does supporting cast with Groom as anchor

July 24, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

When the Orioles defeated the Chicago White Sox in 14 innings on Saturday night, they mobbed Brook Fordyce for producing the game-winning hit, with teammates practically pummeling him in excitement over a job well done.

Instead of basking in his own glory, Fordyce said the main credit belonged to the pitching staff, especially the bullpen, which had tossed eight scoreless innings.

"That's why we're here with a victory," Fordyce said.

In some ways, that game was a microcosm of the Orioles' season, with the bullpen serving as the backbone for the team's success - albeit pretty quietly.

Entering last night's rainout against the Toronto Blue Jays, which has been rescheduled for Aug. 24, Orioles relievers led the American League with 20 wins and were second only to the Seattle Mariners with a 3.48 ERA.

In Mike Hargrove's first two years as Orioles manager, his bullpen's ERA was an Achilles' heel, posting a 5.58 ERA in 2000 and a 4.36 ERA in 2001. The improvement in this area is a major reason this team is 47-50 after finishing 74-88 in 2000 and 63-98 last year.

"The secret's out now," Orioles reliever Rick Bauer said, speaking of the bullpen and the team at large. "We're better than what people gave us credit for at the beginning of the year."

The thing that has made this development so surprising is the youth of several relievers who are making it happen.

Jorge Julio, 23, has taken a firm grip on the closer's job, converting 19 of 24 saves and posting a 2.14 ERA. He has gone 20 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run.

"I'm learning a lot with my routine," Julio said. "I'm working in the gym, working on my legs because it's a long season."

Willis Roberts, 27, has posted a 1.99 ERA, gradually improving into a top setup man. Seventeen of his past 20 appearances have been scoreless.

B.J. Ryan, 26, has struggled for long stretches but pitching coach Mark Wiley has helped him work out some of the difficulties. In his past nine appearances, Ryan has allowed just two runs and two hits.

Bauer, 25, is another one of Wiley's projects. After a phenomenal April, Bauer struggled quite a bit through May and June, but he has allowed just one earned run in his past 8 2/3 innings.

"I think [left-handed reliever] Buddy Groom has had a tremendous stabilizing effect on our guys down there," Hargrove said. "I think Buddy gives those guys leadership, and he also gives them a security blanket because if they mess up Buddy can come in and clean it up."

Groom, 37, has cleaned up on opposing hitters this season, posting a 1.85 ERA and allowing just three hits in his past 14 games. Groom, Roberts and Julio give the Orioles one of the more formidable late-inning trios in baseball.

And lately, the bullpen has received solid contributions from long reliever Chris Brock, who has allowed no runs and two hits in his past 7 2/3 innings, as well as veteran left-hander Yorkis Perez, who has allowed earned runs in just three of his nine appearances.

Brock is attempting to repair a seven-week hole in his season caused by inflammation in his right shoulder that forced him on the disabled list in April.

"Getting more regular work helps," said Brock, who held the Blue Jays to one hit over 3 2/3 scoreless innings Monday to lower his ERA to 4.12. "My arm took awhile to get in shape."

Since the All-Star break, all the Orioles relievers' arms have been in shape, the bullpen posting a 1.24 ERA.

"Rick Bauer's weathered the storm, and it looks like he's throwing the ball better now," Hargrove said. "Brock is doing what he's doing. B.J. Ryan has weathered the storm, looks like he's on a comeback. Willis Roberts has been golden here the last month. So things are good."

Sun staff writers Roch Kubatko and Travis Haney contributed to this article.

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