Here's a place where middle man is valued

O's Lopez proof long relief is `crucial,' though coveted by managers, not players


May 18, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez was the most effective middle reliever in the major leagues over the first six weeks of the season, but all the while he was pining for an opportunity to return to the starting rotation.

He finally got his wish after the club's young starting rotation came unglued -- and will start tomorrow or Thursday against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field -- but the Orioles could come to regret digging a new hole to fill in an old one.

In a perfectly balanced baseball world, Lopez might have realized that he had found the place where he fit perfectly on the Orioles' pitching staff, but he would concede only that the role was "necessary." The reason: No one has ever aspired to be a long reliever.

Think about it. When was the last time you heard two 10-year-olds fighting over who gets to be Ramiro Mendoza? Nobody sets out to be an unsung hero, not even the guy who was signed off the roster of the Culiacan Tomato Growers of the Mexican League. It's possible to make the case Lopez would be the Orioles' Most Valuable Player of 2004, if such a distinction had to be decided in mid-May, but even that was not enough to make him totally satisfied with a middle relief role.

"I feel pretty comfortable on the mound," Lopez said last week, "but I don't want to say I'm comfortable pitching outside of the rotation."

This is the nature of long relief. No team can be successful without a guy to bail out a struggling starter, pitch indefinitely in extra innings or just hold things together at a pivotal time that is too early to use a setup man or closer. And yet the stereotype persists that the long guy is the last man on the pitching staff. Next stop, Waiverville.

There are pitchers who fit that description, of course, especially during the early weeks of the season. The odd starter out on the last day of spring training may hang around to pitch in blowout games to preserve the rest of the staff early in the season, or fill a roster spot until an injured player joins the club -- good work if the alternative is being designated for assignment.

"It depends on the pitcher," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "Rodrigo was never the 12th man on our staff. I'd compare him [as a reliever] to a Ramiro Mendoza or a Ron Davis back when I was with the Yankees ... somebody to keep it close until the game goes one way or the other -- and it hasn't gone the other way with Rodrigo out there."

Mendoza is a good example, a young pitcher who appeared to be ticketed for the Yankees rotation, but for several years filled a critical swing role that made him extremely valuable to manager Joe Torre. Sure, he wanted to be Andy Pettitte when he started out, but he became so valuable as a middle reliever and spot starter that he made peace with the role.

"To me, that is such an important part of the team," said Torre. "I remember in the '50s, Ernie Johnson used to be the middle reliever for the Milwaukee Braves. He used to say it's the loneliest job in town. You don't start and you don't finish, so you shower alone a lot. But it's so important, especially now, when who knows how many runs is enough."

The Yankees repeatedly refused significant offers from opposing teams trying to acquire Mendoza. He eventually left as a free agent to fill a similar role with the Red Sox, but struggled last season and currently is on the disabled list.

"I know a lot of teams requested him," said Orioles manager and former Yankees coach Lee Mazzilli, "but Joe didn't want to trade him."

Now, Mazzilli has been forced into a potentially troublesome tradeoff, but there really wasn't a better alternative when the Orioles optioned struggling right-hander Kurt Ainsworth to the minor leagues.

There was, however, a precedent. Lopez was 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA in a similar role when he was promoted to the starting rotation in 2002. He went on to win 15 games and finished second in the balloting for American League Rookie of the Year.

The Orioles resisted the temptation to move Lopez when Matt Riley went on the disabled list Tuesday. They chose to bring up Daniel Cabrera from Double-A Bowie, a clear indication of how much Mazzilli values the job Lopez was doing in the bullpen.

"Middle relief is absolutely crucial," Mazzilli said. "You look back at some of the ballgames we have had, where, in the middle of the game, a run or two and it gets away from you. Look at Mendoza. Look at the job [Tim] Wakefield did for the Red Sox when he was in that role."

Trouble is, no matter how much value a team places on middle relief, it's still considered a blue-collar job, especially when the time comes to haggle over salary. The big money goes to the frontline starters and a few premier closers.

Lopez has been a frontline starter, but suffered a difficult 2003 season and did not pitch well in winter ball, but still was in a position to win a place in the rotation out of spring training.

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