It's wild time on O's runway

Missing their target, club's starters land in heap of high-scoring losses

May 24, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

With a staff of starters who all pitched fairly well last season and the game's most successful pitching coach on hand, the Orioles spoke of the mound as an area of strength, or at least reliability, this spring.

Seven weeks later, it seems more like a disaster zone.

After Monday's 8-6 loss to the Seattle Mariners, the Orioles ranked first in the majors in walks allowed and second to last in ERA (5.62) and batting average against (.287.)

"There is an overall lack of passion on this pitching staff," said frustrated pitching coach Leo Mazzone yesterday. "You talk about it all the time, how you dedicate yourself to the game and prepare. I think it should hurt a lot when you lose and be happy as hell when you win. I don't think you should just shrug it off. Some [take it personal], some don't. There's just way too many mistakes being made."

Mazzone can diagnose the problem. But the cause? That's more elusive.

"The surprise to me is the lack of command of a fastball," Mazzone said. "We just keep on practicing to get it down. You can talk about your changeups and your sliders and your curveballs, etc., but if you can't put a fastball where you want it, it doesn't do you any good."

Every Orioles starter posted a walk rate better than his career average last season. So some increase might have been expected. If the Orioles continue at their current pace, however, they would post the worst walk rate of any team since the 1996 Detroit Tigers, who finished with a 6.38 ERA and lost 109 games.

Kris Benson has been the team's most consistent starter. Erik Bedard has been more good than bad but still fails to control his off-speed pitches in some starts. Daniel Cabrera has ranked among the wildest pitchers in baseball. Bruce Chen and Rodrigo Lopez haven't been wild, exactly, but they've consistently missed spots within the strike zone and been punished for it.

The Orioles thought they might have a solution in top prospect Hayden Penn, but he was struck down by appendicitis after joining the team on Monday. So they called up Adam Loewen, their other elite prospect. But Loewen has started only eight games at Double A and has battled control problems throughout his minor-league career (26 walks in 49 2/3 innings this season).

The club's bullpen also ranks among the most walk-happy in the game.

"It's just been kind of a freakish thing that's been going on," Benson said. "I haven't understood why we're walking so many guys. It's just one of those unexplainable things. You know, everybody's objective is to get ahead and stay ahead. I'm sure over the course of the season it will start to even itself out."

Bedard said the fans shouldn't blame Mazzone.

"He just helps you concentrate more, focus more on down and away and be more consistent with all your pitches," he said of the coach. "It takes a while in any profession you're at. If somebody asks you to do something different, you're not going to do it overnight. People that don't know the game deeply, they think somebody is going to come over here and change the whole thing. In reality, it doesn't work that way."

Though the lack of control may seem like a contagious disease, it's really something that must be fixed pitcher by pitcher, according to Mazzone.

"You have to do it pitcher by pitcher to see if a guy just doesn't have the ability to throw strikes or he does and he's trying to pitch away from the bat," he said. "We have a goal here. We want them to hit it on the end or on the handle."

Mazzone emphasizes that point as he monitors between-start throwing sessions. He wants his pitchers to believe that if they throw strikes on the corners, opponents won't hit the ball hard. The philosophy helped the Atlanta Braves lead the league in ERA 10 times in Mazzone's 15 seasons as pitching coach.

But Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said last week that his old friend has seemed at a loss for why he can't help pitchers such as Lopez and Chen.

It's not Atlanta

Unlike some baseball skills, control is something that can be honed. Mazzone's great pitchers in Atlanta demonstrated that. Greg Maddux had above-average control in his first good year for the Chicago Cubs, walking 2.9 hitters per nine innings. But once he reached Atlanta and Mazzone, his walk totals shrank to legendarily low levels.

John Smoltz posted pedestrian walk rates as a young pitcher, offering 3.7 free passes per nine innings as a 26-year-old in 1993. Last year, in his final season under Mazzone, he walked a mere 2.1 batters per nine.

"Just in generalities, the differences coming from where I was to where I am at. The main key is being able to command and the simplicity of being able to throw a fastball down and away," Mazzone said. "Hasn't been easy for all of them so far. If that is something that you can't take care of, what the hell are you doing pitching in the big leagues?"

Bedard and Benson have been fine in Mazzone's eyes.

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