MILWAUKEE -- By the number he wears you'd think Alan Mills was on loan from the junior varsity.
He comes out of the bullpen with that "75" on his back and you can almost hear the barb coming from the stands: "He's either an offensive tackle or he's not good enough to get a real number."
There was a time in his career when Mills would've had trouble qualifying for a "real" number, but no longer. If Orioles general manager Roland Hemond doesn't have the steal of the year in this righthander, then the Yankees know a lot more than it would appear right now.
For the fifth time this year, Mills came in last night and put his grip on a game that had been threatening to get away from the Orioles almost from the start. Starter Bob Milacki wasn't bad, but neither was he able to take command, and ultimately he left with a 4-3 lead and the tying run on base with two outs in the sixth inning.
On his first pitch, Mills gave up a game-tying single to Scott Fletcher, but he did little wrong thereafter. In 3 1/3 innings, Mills (5-1) gave up three hits and didn't allow a run.
In dropping his ERA to 1.21, Mills had two strikeouts, one of which represented the biggest out of the game. Darryl Hamilton had sliced a double to left leading off the seventh and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt, bringing Paul Molitor (.322) to the plate.
Five pitches later Molitor was gone, having chased a high fastball, and the Orioles had taken a major step toward an 8-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers that kept them within a half-game of the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League's Eastern Division.
"Let me tell you something -- that pitch to Molitor is as hard as anyone on this team can throw a baseball," said manager Johnny Oates. "He needed a strikeout and he threw the ball where he had a chance to get one."
Like everyone else with the Orioles, Oates has been impressed with Mills since the first day he saw him in spring training. He had been obtained for two minor-league pitchers in a deal the Yankees were forced to make in order to clear room on their roster for third baseman Charlie Hayes.
As soon as Mills reported to Sarasota, Fla., and worked out for the first time there was a unanimous consensus. "Either the Yankees made a big mistake or they know something we don't," said one Orioles official.
At this point, it seems safe to say the Yankees made a mistake. "That's quality stuff you saw out there," said pitching coach Dick Bosman, whom Oates credits for Mills' recall from Rochester two months ago when Mark Williamson went on the disabled list.
"He's still a pup," Bosman said of Mills. "He hasn't even learned the mental part of pitching yet."
When Oates was asked if Mills hadn't been impressive enough to warrant a "varsity" or "real" number, he just smiled. "I think he's going to keep that one for a while," said Oates. "I don't think he's anxious to change."
Actually Mills has an attachment for the number -- but not for any sentimental reasons. When he reported to training camp, where active numbers are scarce, 75 just happened to be available and handy.
But when Mills was recalled from the minor leagues, his options were greatly expanded. He was given a big selection of numbers from which to choose -- but declined to change.
"It's the one they gave me [when he reported], so I just figured I'd keep it," Mills said.
"Alan, no matter what they say, don't let them talk you into changing that number," Oates yelled from across the clubhouse.
Mills just smiled, which he does a lot, and said very little, which he does even more often. He acts like he'd just as soon nobody noticed that he was around.
That is often the case with middle or long relievers -- but the way Mills has performed for the Orioles, it's not likely he can just be the "reliever with the high number."
Even his fellow members in the bullpen brigade take notice when Mills starts to throw. "Hard," said Storm Davis, describing a typical Mills pitch. "Very hard.
"And it's an easy hard," said Davis. "The ball gets on top of you in a hurry."
Despite his success in spring training, Mills was not an automatic choice when Williamson went down in the second week of the season.
"The reason he's here right now is because of Bozzie," Oates said of his pitching coach. "There was a lot of discussion about Jim Lewis and Richie Lewis [both spring training participants who went to Rochester], but it was Boz who made the convincing argument that Alan was the guy to bring up."
It is a decision the Orioles have had no reason to regret, and last night's stick-to-it-win was only the latest example.
Three different times last night the Orioles took a lead, only to see the Brewers come back to tie. Mike Devereaux's 11th homer of the year triggered a two-run first inning. But Milacki, again struggling early, gave up three hits and two runs in the bottom half of the inning.
A two-out single by Leo Gomez made it 3-2 in the third, when Sam Horn opened with the first of his three hits, but the Brewers matched that run in the fifth on a single, stolen base, infielder grounder and sacrifice fly (by Pat Listach).
The teams then matched runs in the sixth, with Devereaux driving in Brady Anderson, who had singled and stolen his second base of the night (24 for the year) before Fletcher greeted Mills with a single.
But then Mills took over and held off the Brewers until the ninth, and the bottom of the Orioles' batting order produced four runs to break the game open. A walk to Randy Milligan started the rally, with Joe Orsulak's hit-and-run single the key. Gomez, Mark McLemore and Jeff Tackett followed with singles and Devereaux put a cap on the scoring with a sacrifice fly for his third RBI of the night.