Thomas, Belle force hard choices

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Frank Thomas, then Albert Belle.

How do you pitch to those two guys, back-to-back? They'll bat third and fourth, respectively, for the Chicago White Sox this season.

"Four walks," said Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina. "They'll get four walks a game between them. You watch."

Mussina has good reason to say this. Thomas has a lifetime batting average of .556 against Mussina, Belle a .346 average.

With Belle joining forces with the Big Hurt, Mussina said, "it's going to be tougher pitching to the whole team, and it's going to absolutely be tougher pitching to Thomas. You'll be sitting there wondering, which is the lesser of two evils? They're both capable of beating you with one swing."

But Mussina doesn't say Belle's presence will necessarily help Thomas. Rather, the hitters behind Thomas and Belle will benefit the most, because they'll have more runners on base when they bat. "Guys like Harold [Baines] and [Robin] Ventura, they're the ones who are going to be helped," Mussina said.

Mussina and Orioles third base coach Sam Perlozzo agreed that pitching tough to Chicago's No. 1 and No. 2 hitters is going to be particularly important; pitchers will really bear down on Ray Durham, Tony Phillips or whoever else fills those roles. Said Perlozzo, "You have to, because you don't want Thomas and Belle coming up with runners on base."

Former Orioles left-hander Mike Flanagan offered a succinct strategy to pitching to Thomas and Belle: "Low and away. Low and away."

If a pitcher can do that, he at least stands the chance of minimizing the damage. One American League executive said that his team intends to pitch carefully to Thomas, and if he's walked, so be it. Belle is slow enough that every time he comes to bat with a man on, there's a good chance he's going to hit into a double play. For this team, the lesser of two evils is going to be Belle.

Orioles assistant GM Kevin Malone said he doesn't think a pitcher should give either slugger anything remotely close to the strike zone in a critical situation. "If you don't pitch to them, they can't beat you," Malone said. "I'd rather take my chances with somebody else beating me. I'd really go after the other guys in the lineup."

Malone concurs with Mussina that Belle's presence will have minimal impact on Thomas' offense. "I don't see how [Thomas] can get much better than he is," Malone said. "I'm sure a little better, but seriously, how much better can he get?"

We'll find out soon.

"They're going to get on base a whole lot," Malone said, "and the guys behind them are going to be able to do some damage. They're going to bat in a lot of RBI situations."

Mussina's kindness

Last Sept. 28, Mussina was three outs away from achieving 20 victories for the first time in his career. The Orioles led Toronto, 2-1, bottom of the ninth, and Armando Benitez came in from the bullpen to close out the Blue Jays.

Sitting in his clubhouse chair Friday, Benitez recalled how excited he felt. Ever since Benitez entered pro ball, Mussina had been his favorite player, his idol. What a pitcher Mussina is, Benitez thought, and here I am, standing on the mound, with a chance to save his 20th victory for him. How wonderful. The Orioles, too, needed only three more outs to clinch the wild-card berth in the playoffs.

However, Blue Jays third baseman Ed Sprague hit a one-out homer over the left-field wall, tying the game. Orioles manager Davey Johnson called on Randy Myers to replace Benitez, who returned to the clubhouse, devastated.

Roberto Alomar homered the next inning, enabling the Orioles to win the game and clinch the wild-card berth. But as his teammates poured champagne on each other, Benitez cried and cried.

"I felt like my heart had broken in four pieces," said Benitez, his eyes misting as he remembered. "Mussina could've won his 20th game."

Mussina consoled Benitez that day, telling him it was no big deal. "He told me I would get lots more chances to save games for him," Benitez recalled. "He's such a nice guy."

Mussina possesses a cutting wit and is capable of great sarcasm, and he enforces high standards for himself and others. But when reporters approached him that day, and one asked him if he was disappointed he hadn't gotten his 20th win, Mussina replied simply, "No. We won."

Wrong Bill Russell

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Bill Russell received an

autograph request in the mail last week, someone asking him to sign his playing card. Except the Bill Russell on the card was 6 feet 10, 220 pounds and playing basketball in a Celtics uniform. Bill Russell of the Dodgers is 6-0, 200 pounds and played baseball. "I guess it's easy to get us mixed up," said Russell.

The Cleveland Indians dumped second baseman Carlos Baerga last summer, in part because of his extended social schedule. Well, Baerga says he has quit drinking. "When you're the one out with a group of guys," said Baerga, "you're the one who has to say yes and you're the one who has to say no. I can say no. I don't say I had a drinking problem. It's not that I was drunk every day." Baerga, expected to play second base for the New York Mets this season, weighed in at 215 pounds, 13 fewer than he did at the start of spring training last year.

Jose Canseco arrived later than expected to spring training. Boy, oh, boy, Oakland manager Art Howe is going to love that guy.

Griffey in swing with Woods

Ken Griffey has invited Tiger Woods to spring training with the Seattle Mariners, and Woods might take him up on the offer to work out and take batting practice. "We'll get Tiger into a game, too," said Griffey. "Skip [Lou Piniella] said it was OK. Tiger thinks baseball is easy compared to golf. He'll see."

So let's get this straight. Cecil Fielder wanted out of Detroit so he could go play with a winner. He went to the Yankees and hit like crazy in the World Series and won a championship. Now, upset that he was benched for a game in the World Series, he wants out of New York, saying he needs to play every day. Fielder demanded a trade, but there's a slight problem -- nobody wants him or his $7.2 million salary. If the Yankees can't deal him by March 15, he could become a free agent. But seeing as how Fielder wouldn't see a dime of that $7.2 million if he did walk away, you can rest assured the big guy will revoke his trade demand.

Outfielder Phil Plantier is the focus of early raves in the San Diego camp. "He's getting back to where he was in '93," said Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund. Plantier hit 34 homers that season, but to repeat that feat, he'll need to somehow break into the outfield of Greg Vaughn, Tony Gwynn and Steve Finley (and don't forget Rickey Henderson, a cinch to be traded or dumped before the start of the season).

Mets reliever John Franco was surprised to discover that former slugger Howard Johnson is in the New York camp attempting a comeback. Said Franco: "I thought he was either coming here to coach or cork our bats."

O's and contracts

The Orioles probably wouldn't feel so brave about not re-signing Mussina to a long-term deal if they didn't have a collection of good pitchers developing in the farm system. The Orioles' philosophy may be that, in two years or three years, it may be better to pay Sidney Ponson and/or Alvie Shepherd around $250,000 each to win 10 games than it would be to pay Mussina $7 million to win 20 games. More bang for the buck, so to speak. There's logic there, but it ignores the harsh reality that no team consistently wins in any league without having an

established No. 1 starter. Ponson may become that in time, but what will the Orioles do in the interim?

The idea of Cal Ripken leaving the Orioles as a free agent and signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks or some other team is as unseemly as a bearded lady at the circus. The Iron Man, finishing his career as a sideshow, rather than at Camden Yards? Blecchh.

O's face double trouble in Chicago

Few pitchers fare well against the White Sox's newly formed dynamic duo of Frank Thomas (above left) and Albert Belle, but the Orioles' staff really struggles, based on past regular-season battles:

Pitcher .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Thomas .. .. .. .. .. ..Belle

Mike Mussina.. .. .. .. .. .556, 6 HR.. .. .. ... .346, 3 HR

Jimmy Key.. .. .. .. .. .. .250, 1 HR.. .. .. ... .385, 4 HR

Scott Erickson.. .. .. ... .342, 1 HR.. .. .. ... .375, 2 HR

Rocky Coppinger .. .. ... .. .. ..N/A.. .. .. ... .600, 2 HR

Shawn Boskie.. .. .. .. .. .455, 1 HR.. .. .. ... .250, 1 HR

Arthur Rhodes .. .. .. .. .. .. ..N/A.. .. .. ... .357, 2 HR

Jesse Orosco.. .. .. .. .. .400, 0 HR .. .. .. .. .. .. .N/A

Scott Kamieniecki.. .. ... .467, 2 HR.. .. .. ... .318, 2 HR

N/A -- Faced each other fewer than five plate appearances.

Pub Date: 2/23/97

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