For O's Julio, improvement in shoulder is a relief

Dealing with tendinitis, closer says arm is `better'

March 19, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles closer Jorge Julio isn't sugarcoating it now. He was scared.

"Very, very, very scared," he said. "Sometimes, I couldn't sleep."

Julio's prized right shoulder was killing him, and he had no idea why.

Here he was, hoping to fine-tune his skills in the Venezuelan Winter League in preparation for a pivotal season in his young career, and he could hardly throw a fastball through a pane of glass.

He called Orioles trainer Richie Bancells, who ordered him back to Baltimore. Julio underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam - the one that sometimes brings pitchers horrible news such as a torn rotator cuff - but to everyone's relief, this news was good.

Julio, 25, was found to have tendinitis. His shoulder was weak, and the MRI showed inflammation. But Bancells put Julio on a three-week strengthening program before spring training, and the results have been encouraging.

"It's better," Julio said. "It's not 100 percent, but it's OK."

Julio breathed a sigh of relief as he said this, because this is a big season for him. After a dazzling rookie season in 2002, his performance leveled off a bit last year, and he wants to show people he can take that next step forward this season.

His idol is New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, a fellow Venezuelan who has been as dominant as any pitcher in the game over the past seven years.

In 2002, Julio took over as the Orioles' full-time closer after spring training and went on to convert 25 of 31 save opportunities while posting a 1.99 ERA. He finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting behind Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Eric Hinske and Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez.

As a whole, the Orioles bullpen went into a funk last year, and Julio went with it. He converted 36 of 44 save opportunities but yielded a 4.38 ERA.

This winter, the Orioles signed veteran Mike DeJean, ostensibly to be a primary setup man for Julio. But DeJean converted 27 of 30 save opportunities for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002, and he'd certainly be available to close if Julio falters.

This spring, new Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli has made it clear Julio is cemented in as his closer. And Mazzilli said this even after Julio turned a 10-3 blowout into a 10-8 squeaker against the Boston Red Sox on March 11.

Julio is taking nothing for granted. "I'm working every day like it's my first time in the big leagues," he said.

When Julio looks back on the drop in his performance last season, he chalks it up to the way hitters made adjustments against him. His fastball is his bread-and-butter pitch, but for it to be effective, he has to mix in his slider and changeup.

"My first year, nobody knows me," he said. "My second year, everybody knows me. I come in, and they're looking for my fastball."

Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley has used this spring to work on Julio's mechanics. Last year, Julio allowed 13 runners to steal bases against him, which was the most among AL relievers.

So Wiley worked with Julio on a slide-step delivery, designed to shorten the time it takes him to get the ball to the catcher. Wiley said Julio is starting to get comfortable with the new leg kick.

Wiley sees no reason to believe Julio won't be as effective as ever this season.

"Health-wise, he's fine," Wiley said. "Mechanics-wise, he's getting there. He's been throwing real well. In terms of velocity, every game he's been out there, he's been 95-96 [mph]. That's pretty good for early in the spring."

And it's real good considering how Julio felt six weeks ago.

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