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O's have deep affection for their bullpen Mix of experience, arms is far cry from last season


ARLINGTON, Texas -- Randy Myers knows the feeling. A "Nasty Boys" alumnus from the 1990 Cincinnati Reds, the Orioles closer can remember the fear and loathing a dominant bullpen can create.

Comparisons can be dangerous and would now be premature. Still, there is a temptation.

"This group has a real good look to it. There's experience to go with a lot of good arms. What you need is for everybody to stay healthy," said Myers, who saved the Orioles' first two victories.

Health was a pricey commodity for the Orioles last season. Except for Alan Mills' slight groin pull, this spring offers a more hale look.

The names are familiar but the situation is radically different from 1996. Mills opened the season on the disabled list and didn't make his first appearance until May 14. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder Aug. 30 and finished the season bothered by a groin injury.

If Mills wasn't dealing with an injury, Arthur Rhodes was limited by shoulder woes.

"We were never really all there," Mills said. "We were kind of piecing it together. But I think I made it stronger. I think what we went through last year should make us stronger this year."

Rhodes already has rescued one game, going two innings in Thursday's 6-4 comeback win over the Kansas City Royals. In the season-opening series, the bullpen took no damage in 7 1/3 innings, and last night it pitched three scoreless innings to preserve the Orioles' 5-4 victory over the Texas Rangers.

Most teams wince at the thought of going past two or three pitchers in the eighth and ninth. The Orioles have a fistful of options.

Armando Benitez, who struck out five of the six batters he faced for last night's save, is considered a closer-in-waiting. Mills and Rhodes combined for 12 wins last season. For three years with the Florida Marlins, Terry Mathews was considered one of the National League's most competent setup men. Jesse Orosco, Rhodes and Myers may be the league's strongest left-handed pen.

"If everybody does what they're capable of doing, we're in a position to do a lot," Mills said.

Manager Davey Johnson speaks of being "naked" against strong right-handed-hitting teams last season, most notably the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees. The Rangers dominated the Orioles 10-3 during the regular season, and the difference in bullpens could account for the Yankees' four-game edge in the AL East.

"I said all along it's difficult to compete with different clubs if you don't have a right side of the pen," Johnson said. "We had enough right side of the pen to win one game, but we didn't have it back-to-back. This year, with everybody healthy and the addition of Mathews, we have a chance to play a lot better than we did last year."

Thursday night, Mathews shut out the Royals for 1 1/3 after Scott Kamieniecki survived only 4 2/3 innings. Wednesday, right-handers Mills and Benitez struck out three of the six hitters they faced. Such maneuverability decreases the chance of a bullpen becoming fried by midsummer.

"Randy did a great job for us last year. But eventually everybody goes through periods when they're not pitching or hitting," Mills said. "Other guys have stepped up when needed. As long as we do that, we should win a lot of games."

Pub Date: 4/05/97

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