ROYALS' 4-FLUSH A WINNING HAND? Boone discards 5th starter, keeps turning up aces

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anaheim, Calif. -- Kansas City Royals manager Bob Boone could have tiptoed into his first major-league managerial position. He could have stuck to the textbook moves and kept his head down and got himself established before standing conventional baseball wisdom on its ear, but necessity became the mother of reinvention.

Boone opened his managerial career with a major gamble. Faced with the loss of premier starting pitcher David Cone this spring, ,, he filled the void with air. He entered the 1995 season with a four-man starting rotation, and not just because there were some convenient early-season days off to keep his pitching staff fresh.

The Royals have turned back the clock a generation or so, back to a time when no one thought twice about pitching on three days' rest and certainly no one would have considered 200 innings a year as the benchmark of pitching endurance. Boone did it to consolidate his questionable pitching depth and -- so far -- the decision has kept cut-rate Kansas City competitive.

If not for that decision, the Royals probably would not be eight games over .500 and the only team with any reasonable chance of closing the gap on the runaway Cleveland Indians in the American League Central. Those two teams meet tonight in a series that could determine whether there is any drama in that division race.

"I understand the risks," Boone said, "but I know what the alternatives are. We wouldn't be sitting here talking [about the Cleveland series] if it wasn't for this. I'm not going to worry about the politics of it. It's either right or it's wrong."

No one can be sure of which just yet, but the early results have been positive. Right-hander Kevin Appier is 11-2 and stands at or near the top of the league rankings in just about every statistical category relevant to a starting pitcher. Mark Gubicza (4-6, 3.67 ERA) has pitched better than his win-loss record. Chris Haney (3-1, 2.09) is doing well despite soft offensive support, and Tom Gordon has a winning record (5-2) in spite of a so-so 4.48 ERA.

From May 24, when Boone started using the four-man rotation almost exclusively, through Saturday (the Royals were rained out yesterday), the four had combined for 22 quality starts (allowing three runs or fewer in at least six innings) among their 29 starts.

"If you asked the four starters, everyone really likes it," said Gubicza, dean of the rotation. "Mentally, it helps because you get back out there sooner, so you don't get too pumped up or too down. Physically, I feel no difference. We started it during spring training, and I was all for it because it's more chances to get out there and more times you can help the team win."

Considering that the cost-conscious Royals traded Cone and center fielder Brian McRae at the outset, things probably couldn't be much better, but Boone realizes that his controversial decision has carried him through only a third of the season.

"The critics say that it won't last," Boone said. "Maybe it won't. But I don't think we had anything to lose. Every old-timer I've talked to who did both liked pitching on the fourth day better."

But these aren't old-timers. They're new-age players who have grown up pitching on longer rest and know the value -- the monetary value -- of taking no chances with their multimillion-dollar arms. Boone, perhaps the most durable catcher in history, is a throwback and knows it.

"There are valid points to the criticism," Boone said. "In the minor leagues, these guys are trained to pitch every five games. I think it's how you approach it mentally. The biggest risk is, a guy has a bad outing, and he starts thinking it's because of three days' rest."

Actually, the biggest risk is that a couple of them come up sore in August and everyone from the front office to the media comes to the most convenient conclusion -- that Boone pulled a Billy Martin and burned up a bunch of good arms. It was a calculated risk that he did not take blindly.

"This is the kind of thing managers get fired over, no question," Boone said, "but I think you do everything as intelligently as you can, and I always have a reason for what I do. It may not always be the right reason, but I have to do what I think is the right thing."

There is a familiar ring to Boone's confidence, and that is no coincidence. He spent several seasons playing for longtime manager Gene Mauch, who recently came out of retirement to join the Royals this year as dugout coach.

Mauch took a similar chance early in his managerial career and hasn't lived it down. He consolidated a struggling Philadelphia Phillies' rotation in the final weeks of the 1964 season and took the blame when the club completed one of baseball's most famous folds. But he doesn't see a comparison -- or a connection -- here, unless it's the way Boone stubbornly did what he thought was right without regard to his own best interests.

"If you're scared, buy a dog," Mauch said. "If you don't make a mistake once in a while, you're not doing a heck of a lot. But this isn't a mistake. You just figure out the best thing to do and do it."

He says the decision was entirely Boone's. They didn't even discuss it. He also says the decision is entirely correct, though Mauch went with a five-man system for much of his managerial career.

"I don't think it was that tough," Mauch said. "People just look around for reasons why things won't work."

It is working, according to Boone and Mauch, because the Royals have four pitchers who can make it work. The departure of Cone forced the issue, but Boone said that he was considering it even before the trade.

"It has to start with almost total certainty that you've got four guys that can handle it," Mauch said. "Bob didn't just sit down and arbitrarily decide to do this. They talked it over."

There have been no complaints. Appier has proved sturdy, and his outstanding performance is the major reason the Royals have filled their own talent gap.

"I liked it right out of the gate," Appier said. "He [Boone] asked me how I felt about it, and I was in favor of it. There's less time between starts, but you throw less in between and you work out differently."

It's not as grueling as it might appear. Boone raised eyebrows when he pitched Appier on three days' rest several times early in the season, but he has manipulated the schedule to make sure that he is not overworked. Appier leads the league in starts, but not by many.

"We actually have pitched Appier on the fifth day more than we have on the fourth, but it's the mind-set of a four-man," Boone said. "There aren't too many [good] fifth starters. The fifth man usually gets beat. If we were in a five-man, we wouldn't be in the position we're in right now."

The Royals aren't in a good position to overtake the Indians, but they don't have to, because they're in excellent position to earn the wild-card berth in the first year of baseball's new, three-tiered playoff system. Boone may be old school when it comes to pitching, but he is not complaining about the newfangled postseason tournament.

"I was glad when they implemented it," Boone said. "It ups your chance of getting to the playoffs, and you can't get to the World Series if you don't get to the playoffs. But nobody wants to concede to the Indians. We've blown four or five games this year that we should have won. If we had won those games, we'd be pretty close to them."

They can get closer in the next three days. The balanced schedule reduces the impact of head-to-head competition, but Boone says it's extremely important to play well against the division's top contender, even early in the season.

"Sure it is," Boone said. "You have to beat that team. Statistically, it doesn't matter, but every game is a two-game swing. You lose a couple of those to a team with a seven- or eight-game lead, it's going to be tough. But I don't expect them to play .700 ball all year."

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