Searching for strengths, O's pitch bullpen

Ligtenberg only bolsters an intact staff that posted 2nd-best ERA in league

Baseball

February 23, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The starting rotation is deep, which makes it easier to plant all those troubling signs. The lineup is missing a bona fide cleanup hitter who rattles both opposing pitchers and empty bleacher seats. The infield defense is suspect on the left side. Heavy expectations are being placed on fragile bodies.

But how about that bullpen?

Pressed to name a team strength as the Orioles completed their 10th day of workouts yesterday, club officials and players are unanimous in their selection of the bullpen. Maybe it's by default, but the unit seems to have only gotten better this winter after posting the second-best ERA in the American League last season.

"I think our pitching is the strong point of our ballclub, and probably the bullpen being the stronger of the two," manager Mike Hargrove said. "There are less questions with the bullpen. But our rotation has a chance to be pretty good, too."

Only if Rodrigo Lopez doesn't turn into Jose Mercedes and become a one-hit wonder, and Omar Daal doesn't revert to 19-loss form. Only if Sidney Ponson finally wins more games than he loses and stays healthy, and Pat Hentgen begins resembling his pre-surgery self. Don't even ask about Scott Erickson or Jason Johnson, who became more expendable when Rick Helling signed as a free agent.

The rotation was 42-75 with a 4.95 ERA last season, and didn't record a quality start for 14 straight games beginning Aug. 23. The relievers, however, were 25-20 with a 3.49 ERA and strung together 24 2/3 scoreless innings to begin the season. Their ERA dropped to 2.94 over the last 92 games.

"The bullpen overlaps to the starters," said Mike Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations. "If you make it as strong as possible, it certainly helps the rotation."

Jorge Julio returns as the closer after registering 25 saves, two short of the club's rookie record, and posting a 1.99 ERA that ranked fourth among American League relievers. The team didn't have a save opportunity after Aug. 23, reducing Julio's value and making him the equivalent of a shiny hubcap on a tricycle.

"We hope not to repeat that process," left-hander Buddy Groom said.

"What's going to help him is he has a full year under his belt. Now he sees how the mental strain is, how to handle himself mentally to get himself through a full season. The biggest thing for him will be controlling his emotions, to maybe step back when in a tough situation and evaluate it and take it nice and slow and keep his mind focused on the job at hand, instead of trying to do too much. We're all guilty of that from time to time. It makes you a better pitcher when you learn to tone yourself down."

That would be good advice for Willis Roberts, the hyperactive setup man who's part reliever, part contortionist. In between pose-downs, Roberts registered a 1.96 ERA through July 28 before allowing runs in eight of his last 19 appearances. He'll begin showing up earlier in games, with free-agent acquisition Kerry Ligtenberg taking over the eighth inning and also spelling Julio on occasion.

While desperate to upgrade their offense, the Orioles couldn't resist offering a contract to Ligtenberg, who spent the past six seasons in Atlanta.

"I saw him a number of times in spring training when I was with Cleveland and I was always impressed with his stuff and the way he went about his business," Hargrove said. "We look at him as a right-handed setup man right now. I have every expectation that that's the job he'll fill for us."

"Adding Ligtenberg has added another cog to our wheel," Groom said. "It only made us stronger. You can never have enough arms down there."

The Orioles are nearing their limit. Julio, Roberts, Ligtenberg, Groom and left-hander B.J. Ryan are cinches to make the club barring a trade, and Rick Bauer still is viewed as a multi-purpose reliever despite his background as a starter in the minors. The field becomes more crowded if Erickson or Johnson falls out of the rotation, and it might not hold Travis Driskill, who appeared in 29 games last season.

Only a few roles are defined - Julio, Groom and Ligtenberg. "There's always room for movement," Groom said.

That's especially true of Bauer, who can pitch in long relief and assist in the later innings. He appeared in 56 games last season, including one start, and led Orioles relievers with six wins.

"He's a young pitcher learning how to pitch in the big leagues, though he did have some success pitching out of the bullpen last year," Hargrove said. "He fills a very important role for us in the bullpen. We're going to go ahead and keep him there for a while."

"As far as I know," Bauer said, "I'm just competing to make the team, whether it be in the bullpen or as a starter. My role's probably going to be the same thing as last year just because it fits into the team's pitching concept a lot easier."

Being lumped with the relievers "helped me experience-wise," he said. "It taught me how to come out of the bullpen, so this year there won't be any surprises when I get thrown into a role. I'll be better off that way. This year I have a feel for everything, so anything I do, I'll be more comfortable with it."

Almost as comfortable as Hargrove when removing one of his starters.

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