Saving grace for O's

Despite competing for closer's role, Sherrill and Ray handle their situation with class and professionalism

March 13, 2009|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles manager Dave Trembley acknowledges that the thought briefly crossed his mind this winter.

If the issue weren't handled correctly, if the personalities involved weren't receptive, Trembley knew he would have a serious problem.

"It could have been a soap opera," Trembley said.

But then he considered the two men central to the issue: current Orioles closer George Sherrill and former Orioles closer Chris Ray.

It made the decision easy. He called Sherrill and told him he would still be the club's closer but wouldn't get every save opportunity. He informed Ray he would be Sherrill's setup man and the fill-in closer when necessary.

Trembley wanted it known before the spring started there would be no closer by committee. That way, Ray's surgically repaired arm would be protected and he would be used as insurance against Sherrill's arm wearing down.

"I didn't know how they were going to take it," Trembley said. "I thought they would take it in a way that wasn't detrimental or disrespectful to either one of them.

"And I was right."

Ray and Sherrill have never played together, never really had much of a conversation before this spring. They are easing into a relationship, however, that will be crucial if the Orioles' bullpen is to prosper.

"We haven't talked a whole lot," Ray said. "Obviously, we are doing drills and stuff together. But we have a whole season for that. He seems like a great guy, fun to hang out with in the clubhouse."

Ray, 27, was supposed to be the Orioles' closer for, roughly, eternity. A third-round pick in 2003, Ray inherited the ninth-inning duties from B.J. Ryan in 2006 and saved 33 games as a 24-year-old. He had 16 saves in 2007 before tearing an elbow ligament that required Tommy John reconstructive surgery that August.

He was shelved for more than a year, sent to Sarasota to rehabilitate his arm and watch helplessly on a restaurant TV as his friends and teammates played for the Orioles.

"The most difficult thing was having nothing to do and then watching the game and watching my teammates out there doing what I wish I could be doing," Ray said. "And knowing there is nothing I could do to speed up the process."

Meanwhile, the Orioles acquired Sherrill last offseason from Seattle in the Erik Bedard trade and immediately anointed the Mariners' former left-handed specialist as the 2008 closer despite his having just four career saves.

Sherrill, 31, looked to be a stopgap answer until Ray was healthy or someone else - possibly young relievers Jim Johnson or Bob McCrory - developed. But Sherrill exceeded expectations by saving 28 games in the first half of the season. He was the Orioles' lone 2008 All-Star and quickly became popular with fans for his intensity and flat-brimmed cap.

Sherrill, struggling with fatigue and injuries, saved just three more games the rest of the season - primarily because the scuffling Orioles failed to provide him with save opportunities.

Still, he did nothing to lose the incumbent closer's job.

"I knew it could be just a one-year thing," Sherrill said. "But obviously with [Ray] coming back from major surgery, they are probably not going to throw him back in there right away."

Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz saw no reason to push Ray, not with the way Sherrill pitched in 2008. But they also didn't want to upset Ray. They didn't.

"I don't think it would be a good idea to throw me right into the closer's role," Ray said. "And it wouldn't be fair to George. George had a great season last year, and I haven't done anything in a year. So I am more than happy with it."

The Orioles are ecstatic with Ray, who has dropped 30 pounds and said his elbow "feels better than it has since Little League days." He's again throwing his fastball in the mid-90s and said he has never had better command of his split-fingered fastball.

Then there's his attitude.

"Chris Ray is to be commended more than I could ever say in a few words," Trembley said. "What this guy has done to come back, the kind of shape he is in. The sense of just wanting to be back out there."

The hope is that Ray can return to the form he exhibited in 2006. If he does, it would create another puzzle for the Orioles: what to do with Sherrill, a 30-something on a rebuilding club.

"We are kind of easing [Ray] back into it, and if he has a phenomenal year, that kind of makes me expendable," Sherrill said.

But there will be no bitterness, he added. Sherrill said his focus is to make the best of a situation in which two pitchers with recent 30-save seasons on their resumes not only co-exist, but also flourish.

"If I don't do my job, I expect it to get taken away or more opportunities will get taken away," Sherrill said. "I'd rather win than have the title of closer. So long as I am a part of winning, that's all that matters."

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