Going by the numbers in O's loss makes for fuzzy math with Mazzilli

September 23, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

THAT OUGHT to teach Lee Mazzilli to play it by the book.

Maz thought he had all the numbers on his side when he brought closer Jorge Julio into Tuesday night's game at Fenway Park, but he had a hard time finding anyone who was on his side after Boston Red Sox second baseman Mark Bellhorn stroked a long two-run single to turn an uplifting late-inning comeback into one of the most second-guessable defeats of the year.

Don't tell me hindsight is 20-20, because you could be legally blind and still see my hind side. I could hear groans all over the neighborhood when the television cameras caught Maz walking to the mound to pull B.J. Ryan with two outs and two runners in scoring position. Maz has plenty of first-guessers, too.

Trouble is, it was a statistical no-brainer if you're playing the matchup percentages. The switch-hitting Bellhorn has a .305 average this year against left-handed pitching, compared with a .236 average against right-handers. Julio came into the game holding left-handed hitters to a .236 average, slightly better than the .241 average right-hander hitters have batted against Ryan.

It was the right move, but only if you're willing to disregard how dominating Ryan had looked retiring the previous two batters and everything else that has happened in the late innings over the previous three weeks.

Ryan had not been charged with a run since late August. Julio has struggled through September and has an 8.10 ERA this month to prove it. He had pitched well in Monday night's victory over the Red Sox, but his performance in tight situations has been - and I'm sugar-coating here - inconsistent.

Obviously, Mazzilli figured that out after the game because he announced yesterday that Ryan would replace Julio in the closer role.

So what was Mazzilli thinking Tuesday night?

It's highly presumptuous of me to try and read his mind when I can barely read my own handwriting, but here goes. Mazzilli has come down to the final two weeks of the season not knowing whether he'll be back in 2005, so who could blame him for playing it statistically safe with the finish line in sight?

Not me. I've been playing it safe for years and look where I am - still driving a '92 Celica with a broken trunk latch and wondering why my kids are embarrassed to bring their friends to the house. But I think it's fair to expect slightly more dynamism from the manager of your major league baseball team, and the thing that everybody in the Orioles' front office liked about Maz at the outset was his willingness to throw away the book and throw a little more instinct into the equation.

If he had done that on Tuesday night, he would have sensed that the Red Sox heaved a big sigh of relief when Ryan walked off the mound ... which is not the reaction you're looking for when you bring your closer into the game.

The final installment of our Orioles 50th anniversary series - headlined "The Greatest Oriole" - ran in yesterday's paper and sparked some talk-show debate over who really is the greatest player in Orioles history. The story about Frank Robinson, skillfully authored by one of The Sun's most talented writers, was accompanied on baltimoresun.com by a poll in which readers could offer their opinions on the subject.

More than 350 readers entered votes by 6 p.m. yesterday and 35.7 percent of them chose Brooks Robinson. Cal Ripken was second with 26.4 percent of the vote, Frank Robinson was third with 26.1 percent, Eddie Murray got 7.4 percent and Jim Palmer got 4.4 percent.

Deion Sanders still contends that the reason he took his helmet off after his punt return on Sunday (and incurred a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty) was because the skull cap under his helmet had slipped over his eyes, which led to this exchange with Deion yesterday at the Ravens' training complex.

Me: "Deion, was that the first time you've ever returned a punt blindfolded?"

Deion: "Oh, yes. That's the first time I've done anything blindfolded. I'm not a kinky guy."

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

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