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O's relying on good, old bullpen boys


Considering how well the Orioles were playing going into the All-Star break, splitting a four-game series with Kansas City at Camden Yards hardly qualifies as a success.

But considering that the Orioles bullpen failed in two of the first three games and faltered again yesterday, splitting the series was an accomplishment.

Doug Jones blew a save in Thursday night's wrenching loss. The LTC next night, Mark Lee gave up a decisive three-run homer in the eighth inning. Yesterday, a 3-0 lead dwindled to 3-2 when Terry Clark gave up a double in the eighth.

Bad relief work is a horror the Orioles have rarely dealt with lately; the Aging Bullpen (so named because the four late-inning guys average age 35) has been consistent for more than a month and was integral to the club's run of 11 wins in 17 games going into the break.

Yet it is reasonable to wonder, especially after this weekend, whether the bullpen has been pitching over its head or whether it has the stuff to hold up for the rest of the season.

It is not as if the Orioles have gathered a bunch of indispensable arms out there. The four late-inning guys -- Jones, Clark, Lee and Jesse Orosco -- have combined to pitch for 16 organizations in the '90s, a staggering figure. Yes, it means someone is always willing to sign them. But also let them go.

Granted, sometimes money affects transactions more than performance, so changing teams isn't necessarily a badge of failure. Lee Smith, Mr. Bullpen himself, has pitched for six organizations. Yet there is no denying that the Orioles have put together a bargain bullpen and squeezed pretty much the maximum from it thus far.

Which leaves us to wonder whether it is fair to expect such four-star production to continue. Consider this windfall of exceeded expectations:

* Clark has a 0.64 ERA and has yet to blow a lead or tie -- a performance no one had a right to expect from a 34-year-old who hadn't won a game in seven years and had only 20 major-league appearances before this year.

* Lee has retired the first batter 13 of 16 times and is 10-for-10 holding a lead or tie -- not bad for a 30-year-old who hadn't pitched in the majors since 1991.

* The club illogically brought in Orosco to pitch to lefties (lefties had hit him 90 points higher than righties since 1992), yet this year lefties are hitting Orosco some 100 points lower than they did in the past three seasons. Go figure.

* Jones hasn't put together back-to-back solid seasons since 1989 and 1990. Since then, his career has faithfully followed a good year-bad year routine. Yet he is breaking that routine this year, at age 38. He has converted 15 of 18 chances for the Orioles after converting 27 of 29 for the Phillies last year.

As they say at the racetrack, that's a lot of gone right.

Add it all up, and it seems to be asking a lot, maybe too much, to expect such success to continue. But manager Phil Regan doesn't seem to care one whit that his late guys have bounced around and exceeded expectations. He rebuts skepticism with what his eyes tell him.

"I feel great about the guys in the bullpen," he said yesterday. "They throw strikes. They know what they're doing."

Of course, this is a manager who watched Brad Pennington, Alan Mills and Armando Benitez get bombed in the first six weeks of the season, rendering irrelevant the majority of his bullpen maneuverings. You bet he is happier now.

"Since we brought in Clark and Lee [on June 8], I've been able to make moves and have them work," Regan said. "Before that, we were losing games in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings."

True, true, all true. But the issue now is whether the Aging Bullpen can keep going. What about the multiple lapses against the Royals?

"A normal thing," said Regan, who made 446 relief appearances in the bigs from 1960 to 1972. "They didn't pitch in Chicago [the weekend before the break], and then had three days off for the break, so they hadn't pitched in a week. I know, from my career, that I needed to pitch regularly to have success. I often had trouble when I hadn't pitched for a long stretch."

Maybe it's just that, a passing thunderstorm in an otherwise blue sky. Certainly, Jones appeared no worse for having blown a save Thursday night when he retired the Royals in the ninth yesterday.

"The bottom line in the bullpen is that you can't be perfect, and, because the game is on the line, you hear about it when you aren't perfect," Jones said. "The goal is to be as consistent as possible."

The four late guys have provided a consistent foundation so far; they're all veterans who know how to work a batter, how to change speeds and locations. None is a hard thrower, except for Lee, but they've done the job most of the time -- until this series.

With the way they've pitched, they've earned the right to make a few mistakes without hearing about them. But how many mistakes is "a few"?

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