Oates can't afford to give up on Smith -- yet


They say the best move after falling off a horse or a bike is to go riding again as soon as possible.

Relief pitchers, especially those who earn their keep late in the game, say the same principle applies to their trade. The sooner they can get into a game situation after blowing a save, the better they like it.

And for the most part, managers have little choice but to go along with the program -- at least to a point. Determining when that point is reached can be one of the toughest parts of the job.

All of which is to say that Johnny Oates has no choice but to try to ride out what he hopes is merely a rough stretch for Lee Smith. The Orioles' closer has struggled for weeks, and such a trend won't reverse itself with one game.

The big right-hander says his problem is mechanical, not physical, and there is evidence to support that contention. His control, impeccable through most of the first half of the season, has been deficient of late.

That's generally a sign that a pitcher either has gone out of kilter or is wearing down. Smith's velocity, which just before the All-Star break was better than it had been at the start of the season, appears to be holding up, lending support to the mechanical breakdown theory.

It isn't wildness, per se, that has been hampering Smith. In fact he probably would be better off if some of his pitches stayed out of the strike zone. Before last night's game, he had allowed almost as many home runs (five) as walks (seven). The ratio is as scary as it is remarkable.

Smith has recorded a major-league-leading 30 saves by throwing pitches over the outer inch of home plate almost without exception. His difficulties of late stem from missing by an inch or two toward the middle of the plate.

As long as he's physically sound and not tiring, Smith should be able to make the necessary adjustment that will enable him to live on the outer edge. At the same time, now that he's going around the American League for a second time, he might find it beneficial to alter the pattern.

Smith found out a few nights ago that fastballs away won't work against Bo Jackson. And he certainly won't want to consistently stay in that location against Frank Thomas either.

At this point, Oates can't afford to give up on Smith. But he also realizes the 36-year-old right-hander will have to be monitored closely.

The ninth-inning move might not be as automatic as it was earlier in the year, and Alan Mills might have to pick up a larger portion of the burden. To this point, the Orioles have gotten more out of Smith than they could have expected.

There's no reason to give up on him now, but the second half of the season may require a delicate balancing act by Oates as he tries to maximize his bullpen production.

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