O's Julio keeps putting saves in the bank

Orioles Plus

Closer leads all rookies in majors with 25, two shy of team's rookie record

August 25, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The Orioles spent last winter thinking they needed a veteran closer, and when spring training arrived, a 23-year-old rookie brashly told them he was ready to handle the job.

Jorge Julio has never been one to shy away from tall tasks at a young age.

He was 13 when his father died, and his mother needed him to become the man of their house in Caracas, Venezuela. He handled that, and then four years later, he became a father himself when his girlfriend, Tewuy Iriarte, gave birth to their daughter.

They had a son three years ago, and Julio married Tewuy in November 2000. The family lives with him in Baltimore now, and he misses them dearly any time they have to leave his side.

So while the Orioles have marveled at Julio's maturity this season - not to mention his 100-mph fastball and 0.26 ERA since June 2 - those who know him close aren't surprised.

"As a man, he grew up faster than most 23-year-olds," said Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez. "He's got kids. He's got responsibilities."

Lopez, 26, has a locker right next to Julio's at Camden Yards, and both of them are in the running for American League Rookie of the Year honors.

Entering Friday, Lopez led major-league rookies with 14 wins, and Julio led rookies with 25 saves.

Julio needed just three more saves to surpass Gregg Olson for the Orioles' rookie record. Olson had 27 saves in 1989, the year he won Rookie of the Year honors, and no Oriole has claimed that award since.

"I'm working more for my family than for me right now," Julio said. "Right now, I'm working hard because I want to buy a house for my mom."

Julio has been unsettled with the recent social unrest in Caracas, but he still plans to return there for winter ball. The Orioles want him to be careful, so he plans on throwing about 20 innings to work on his slider and changeup.

Julio has been so dominant for the past three months, it would seem there is little he could improve. But Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley know better, having been with the Cleveland Indians when Jose Mesa burst onto the scene as a closer.

In 1995, the hard-throwing Mesa led the major leagues in saves with 46 and posted a 1.13 ERA. Within two years, Mesa lost his closer's job to Mike Jackson.

"One year does not a closer make," Hargrove said. "It's still a work in progress [with Julio]. So far, so good."

Julio has come a long way since the Orioles got him from the Montreal Expos for Ryan Minor on Dec. 22, 2000 - less than a month after Julio married Tewuy.

"Best Christmas of my life," Julio said, and think of how the Orioles feel.

Minor is now toiling for the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League.

Julio went 2-10 at Single-A Jupiter the year before the Orioles got him. They started him at Double-A Bowie last season, and he wound up spending 62 days in the big leagues, posting a 1.80 ERA in his final 16 appearances.

He showed flashes of brilliance but hardly enough for them to expect what he has done this season. So the Orioles combed the free-agent ranks this off-season and considered making a run at Antonio Alfonseca this spring before the Florida Marlins traded Alfonseca to the Chicago Cubs.

"[Julio] put his stake in the ground, and said, `I'm the closer,' " said Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift. "He came to me and said, `Why do you keep talking about finding a closer? I can close. I can do the job.' He told Hargrove the same thing."

Saying it is one thing, but Julio led the American League in saves this spring with four and posted a 0.69 ERA.

Without officially naming Julio the closer, Hargrove inserted him into that role and took his chances. Basically, Julio has been brilliant. He entered the weekend 5-5 with a 1.81 ERA and had converted all but six save opportunities.

In their efforts to keep pressure off Julio, Hargrove and Wiley have used veteran left-hander Buddy Groom in an invaluable setup/backup role. On Wednesday night, for example, Julio threw eight consecutive balls to load the bases, and Groom came on to get the game-ending double play in a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

One night later, Julio pitched two scoreless innings and earned the win when the Orioles pushed a run across in the 11th.

"He's shown a really good temperament and mound presence, and those things are hard to teach, especially at this level," Wiley said. "Here, you turn on your TV to ESPN, and there you are giving up a home run to lose the game. It's a little different than giving it up in Double-A."

There was one stretch during which Julio really struggled. He went 0-4 with two blown saves and a 10.13 ERA between May 10 and June 2, but even then he impressed the Orioles with his resolve.

In a span of three days, Julio gave up game-winning home runs to Tampa Bay's Randy Winn and Cleveland's Matt Lawton. Hargrove and Wiley had numerous talks with Julio during that time. Groom took a different approach.

"I didn't really say a lot to him," Groom said. "I didn't think he needed it that much, so I didn't say much. That showed me a lot right there, that I might not need to say a lot to him. He got himself regrouped. He got himself in line."

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