Year after holding breath, fans can take sigh of relief

The Orioles

April 03, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

CARL PAVANO or Tim Hudson would have been nice. Richie Sexson, Carlos Delgado or Magglio Ordonez would have been sweet. But what is Opening Day if not for an inspired bout of amnesia?

So, we'll forget what was, or wasn't, to be. Instead, let's dwell on the positive, because salvation comes in all forms, shapes and sizes.

On that note, we'd like to officially welcome to the bullpen The Two Steves -- veteran relievers who could prove to be the Orioles' most important additions this season.

And that's not because, outside of Sammy Sosa getting dumped in their lap, the Orioles made no other upgrades.

Q: What's the best thing about having Steve Kline and Steve Reed warming up for the Orioles in the sixth inning?

A: Neither of them is Mike DeJean.

At least we can pray they aren't -- or won't turn out to be.

This, folks, is enough of a positive start for the Orioles, especially compared with what happened in the first half of 2004, when the stage for a sub-.500 season was set.

It wasn't all DeJean's fault, but if there was a player who did more to undermine the Orioles' attempt to get out of the batter's box, it was DeJean -- or at least it was his half-season of living dangerously.

Before he was traded -- mercifully -- to the New York Mets, DeJean went 0-5 with a 6.13 ERA for the Orioles, pouring gasoline on an already combustible pitching staff.

It was bad enough that the Orioles' rotation other than Sidney Ponson came into 2004 having thrown 1,881 1/3 big league innings fewer than Pedro Martinez had himself thrown. Can you spell "I-N-E-X-P-E-R-I-E-N-C-E-D?" Worse, Kurt Ainsworth and Erik Bedard got hurt. Ponson was on the moon. Rodrigo Lopez (in the bullpen) was peeved. But to have the worst relief pitcher in baseball imploding before our very eyes?

The Orioles stood no chance. DeJean's numbers for April and May defied logic -- and severely tested sanity -- as DeJean impersonated The Towering Inferno, only he was far less funny.

Was there a scarier sight in all of sports than Lee Mazzilli walking to the mound, motioning for a right-hander: DeJean? It was worse than the ski jumper crashing in the intro to the Wide World of Sports show. Horrifying.

To recap: DeJean went 0-1 in April, giving up seven earned runs in 6 2/3 innings in nine games to register a whopping 9.45 ERA. In May, he went 0-3, throwing 13 innings in 12 appearances, giving up 22 hits and 11 earned runs.

Can you spell one-way ticket out of Camden Station?

And we wonder why a certain Orioles owner might have demanded that the front office trade Denny Bautista for veteran reliever Jason Grimsley after the Orioles spent three months proving that the one thing worse than a young, inexperienced pitching staff was a young, inexperienced pitching staff with not enough veteran relievers to bail it out.

See, there is a pattern here. Of all the moves the Orioles have said they wanted to make the past two years, the only moves they've made concern the bullpen.

Enter Kline and Reed, both signed quietly while the Orioles hunted bigger free-agent game.

Kline, 32, a jester with a great heart, has a lifetime ERA of 3.30 and registered a stellar 1.79 ERA in 67 games last season for the National League-champion St. Louis Cardinals. He acts clownish, but he is a solid competitor.

Reed is one of only 30 major league pitchers to appear in 800 games. That could be a troubling stat, if the 40-year-old right-hander starts to decline. He went 3-8 for the Rockies last season and took a beating his final 15 outings, when his under-3.00 ERA slid to 3.68.

However, this is the era of 40-something pitchers dominating the game. Reed will find Camden Yards cozier than spacious Coors Field, but it shouldn't matter so much because he's a sinkerball pitcher.

Even with the Orioles having lost Buddy Groom, the addition of The Two Steves has Mazzilli boasting about his bullpen. The Orioles will hit. But Mazzilli looks at his starting pitching with a different sense of calm this season.

Twenty outs. That's all Mazzilli wants out of his starters, none of whom is named Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson or Carl Pavano.

Fine. We love a manager who cuts through all the hype and hysteria of not having a front-line, big-name ace at the top of his rotation. The Orioles are going with a familiar foursome of young pitchers: Rodrigo Lopez, Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard, Sidney Ponson, plus one more from their passel of potential No. 5 starters.

But when the manager is asking his starters to give him 20 outs, it's because he sees the guys in the bullpen as his aces. B.J. Ryan is one of the best left-handed setup men in the game. Jorge Julio needs to add a slider to return to the closer role.

The Two Steves give the Orioles depth, experience and a better bridge between out No. 20 and out No. 27.

Last year, when DeJean was setting the Orioles on fire, we wondered when the time might come when we could look back and laugh. The Two Steves are here to make it happen.

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